Rosemary Davidson




Rosemary Davidson




Rosemary Davidson


Pam Schultz

Interview Date


Interview sponsor


Battle Creek, Michigan


Eleanor Wilkinson


Pam Schultz (PS): It's February 12 [2010.] at 10:28 and I'm interviewing Rosemary Davidson. We are at the First United Methodist Church in Battle Creek [Michigan.]. Good morning, Rosemary.

Rosemary Davidson (RD): Good morning, Pam.

PS: How are you doing today?

RD: As little as possible.

PS: Okay. Tell me about the quilt you brought in today.

RD: This is the first item I made after I joined the guild [Cal-Co Quilters' Guild.], which I did in 1991. It was the tenth anniversary of the guild and I decided I would make an entry. They called it a challenge. You had to depict something that would indicate that it was the tenth anniversary and I somehow got the idea of making a piece with ten sides. I'm quite fond of irregular shapes anyway. But I found it quite a drafting concern and I ran into some technical problems that I had help with, but for a miracle, when I finished the center star it worked. And then I went on from there. I made it by dividing it up into like a pie so there were ten pie pieces that all met in the center and I used fabric that matched the flower in the border, which was kind of a mauvey pink. It was blue and green and I find that I do like those colors. I don't know whether the pink is because Rose is part of my name or not, but, anyway, I like it. I hadn't looked at it in quite a while and from another few years of experience I wonder how I did it. I did not know very much about formal quilting. I just did what I liked to do, which is something-I've always been interested in needlework. I tried them all. Made doll clothes and people clothes, did all kinds of other stitchery but somehow, quilting is it.

PS: What special meaning does this quilt have for you?

RD: Well, it's the first thing that I made and entered and I got an award for it.

PS: Why did you choose this quilt to bring to the interview?

RD: Because I thought it was so unique.

PS: What do you think this quilt says about you?

RD: That I'm apt to tackle things that are a little beyond my skill. But, so far they've turned out all right. And that I, perhaps, could have worked a little more on my color matches, but it sold me on doing handwork, I think. And I have since done almost all the things I've made, except baby quilts and something like that, by hand.

PS: How do you use this quilt?

RD: It is explained on the wall which is at home. I could wallpaper the place with things. I don't have quite that many books, so very to display.

PS: So what are your plans for this quilt?

RD: Keep it forever.

PS: That's a good plan.

RD: Let my niece and my daughters fight over it.

PS: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

RD: Well, as I said before, I've always done needlework. When I was younger and the kids were younger I made--I learned to sew, actually by making doll clothes. And then I got old enough--I was probably ten, eleven--and Mother trusted me with her Singer sewing machine, which was a treadle converted with an electric motor. And I got good enough I made my own wedding dress on that machine.

PS: Wow.

RD: And an article was done by Scene Magazine that circulated in our area some years later. And my brother had taken a picture of me at the sewing machine making my wedding dress and they had used it in the magazine and they have a staff member whose picture is displayed somewhere in the magazine and if you find it you call and you get a dinner or something like that. Well, my younger sister, who was in the area saw that. She called up and she said, 'How did his picture get on my mother's sewing machine?' It was on the wheel of the sewing machine. And she got her dinner.

PS: At what age did you start quiltmaking?

RD: Well, let's see, I have to figure out how many years to go back. I was probably sixty to seventy years. But, as I say, I had tried everything else and this was it. I was--I'm a slow learner, you see.

PS: I don't think so. And, who taught you how to quilt?

RD: Mostly me.

PS: Did you?

RD: I did take a couple of formal classes with a couple of friends who were interested but who never pursued it like I did. And I learned some of the technical details and so on. But most of it's self taught, or if I run into a problem I usually can find a friend that can give me a little bit of help. Most of the time I do my own thing.

PS: How many hours a week do you quilt?

RD: I have never kept a clock. Some days I do a lot and it depends, too; I have been forced by accidents to not be very active outside the house. And those have been times that I spent more time quilting, probably. Once I got all the bones healed up enough to do that, I still cannot use the sewing machine. So, isn't that nice that I really like to do it all by hand?

PS: It is. That fits very nicely. What is your first quilt memory?

RD: I don't remember anything about childhood things. And, since I'm the oldest of five, by the time they've gone down, there wasn't anything left. I did not know very much about what my mother did. In fact I never knew she had any quilts until the later years of her life and after she had passed away. And I don't know--I know she made practical things. We had one that wore out that was made out of bits of shirt or whatever, and just made to be used and not to be an ornament.

PS: Are there other quiltmakers among your family or friends?

RD: My next-to-younger sister is a quilter and she kind of started it, the formal part of it anyway. This was about '89, I think. She had a quilter's magazine that was full of rose patterns.

PS: Wow.

RD: Ah well, dumb me, I started making some of those blocks. They were appliquéd and pieced and embroidered, and here's me--I don't know a thing about what I'm doing, but I kept working and I was doing it quilted in patches and then, quilt as you go, I guess is what the technical term is. And it got to be a full-sized quilt. And, by George, it all fit together somehow and I'm so proud of it I don't use it on account of the cats like to sleep on our beds.

PS: And I just asked you that. I'd better make a note here. I'm sorry. How does quiltmaking impact your family?

RD: Well, they live with stacks and stacks of boxes and I cannot lift sufficient to get to the box I need, so I have been known to recruit a strong male. I have a husband and an adult son and the just the other day I made him take down the Fourth of July fabric and exchange it for the Christmas, so I could work on the current project. So they're cooperative.

PS: Tell me if you've ever used quilts to get through a difficult time.

RD: Well, I think I mentioned that one that I brought that's not really anything but busy work. It was a pattern of little tiny squares and I was making quilting projects like pillows with printed fabric, preprinted. And my husband was going through an operation and I quilted a lot while I sat in the waiting room, etc. So that got me through that and as soon as that I got to the point I could, after my shoulder accident and surgery, etc. then I went back to it. And I missed it when I couldn't do it.

PS: Tell me an amusing experience that has occurred from your quiltmaking.

RD: Oh, I can't think of any off the top of my head. I've had a lot of good experiences with it, but I don't--well, I had fun with my friend Brenda. When we go to quilt shows and with other friends and we've gone to quilt shows trying to figure out what that maker was thinking of. We thought the pattern was kind of goofy or the colors, maybe they wouldn't have been the ones that we chose, but that lady chose. I think that's one of the interesting facets--why do people choose what they do? And you never have a chance, or very seldom, have a chance to ask them just why. And maybe they can't tell you. It just looked right to them.

PS: What do you find pleasing about quiltmaking?

RD: The creativity part of it. You start with an idea. You then have to figure out how to make that idea become concrete and you look for--or maybe you have a particular pattern. 'Gee, that's neat. I wish I could figure out how to do that.' And then once you figure out how to do, or maybe you've run across the most wonderful piece of fabric you've got to do something with it. And so you finally get the fabrics chosen and the pattern and then it's the execution and as our new choir director is fond of saying, 'Enjoy the process.' And sometimes there's a little hair pulling and what not and process making, but to see something grow and to know that that's you even though you took somebody else's pattern, it's you when it's done. And I think that's another reason I like to do it by hand. I have control of the needle. Well, not always. I've got a few pricks and what not. And also the repetition that's very soothing. Until you have to take out that awful long one that you made when the cat landed on your lap and stuck his claw in your leg, which has happened.

PS: They like to help, huh?

RD: You know the fabric is wonderful to sleep on, especially when it's the one you're trying to work on.

PS: We have cats and ours go for natural fabrics, so there's something about natural fabric.

RD: Yes.

PS: What aspects of quiltmaking do you not enjoy?

RD: Well, I have not done much with paper piecing. I have done that, but that was so frustrating to me and I think what really did the number on me was I took a class. It was making a lighthouse and the lady had brought the pattern and the water was not just one piece of fabric. It was slivers, paper pieced and put together and I found that I was not getting the instruction that I needed plus I was not used to using the sewing machine for that. I got very little done during the class, but you know my English blood triumphed and I did finish it. In fact, I loaned it to the preacher a couple of Sundays when he preached about lighthouses. With water you'd expect a lighthouse, wouldn't you?

PS: Yes.

RD: Yes.

PS: What art or quilt groups do you belong to?

RD: Well, I belong to the Cal-Co Quilters' Guild. On the national level I belong to the National Quilting Association. Our guild is a chapter. And then, I am friends with a group that's a very informal group that we've done various things together. Right now the group is working on Hospice quilts. My job is to sew down the bindings on the back, by hand.

PS: Have advances in technology influenced your work?

RD: Somewhat. But, I find, now, that I am not prone to use the rotary cutter because I've lost a lot of strength in my arm to hold the ruler steady and unless you hold the ruler steady you end up with zigzags. So, maybe I've cut some binding or something of that nature, but I do not do anything that's entirely rotary cut, not at the present time anyway.

PS: What are your favorite techniques and materials?

RD: Well, materials, I like cotton. I've used a little of cotton-polyester. If I were real desperate and I needed that color and it was all I had. But, cotton works so much better. Techniques, well I appliqué, I piece. I've been known to put a little embroidery on. I've cheated and used buttons for the centers of flowers. Did that with the last piece I did recently. I had three days to finish it before deadline. So I cheated. I use freezer paper for appliqué and mark seam allowances on fabric and then approximate the quarter inch, which usually was all okay.

PS: Describe your studio or the place that you create.

RD: Studio would be the answer to a dream. We live in a two bedroom, very small house. There are three adults. We have computers. We have radio equipment. We have books. We have fabric. We have computers in various stages of disrepair. We do have beds to sleep on and chairs to sit in, and my favorite, just about my only place to quilt is in my chair in my living room, with a good lamp close at hand. That's where I keep what I'm working on and trying to keep the cat from sitting on it. But I have no formal room. Wouldn't I love to have a whole room. But you use what you have and be grateful. I guess. At least that saves a lot of frustration.

PS: How do you balance your time?

RD: Well, right at the moment I do nothing long term except sit. I do something active and then I'll feel like sitting down and I'll sit down and quilt a little bit. Then I'll get some new energy and up and at them and do some laundry or fix the meals or whatever. I try to balance out, but it's kind of difficult when due to various things you no longer to carry on like you used to. And you have to decide what's important, what you can lay aside, even if it's only a temporary thing.

PS: Do you use a design wall?

RD: Well, I'll tell you what my design wall consists of is a piece of Styrofoam™. Pinned to that is an old, old, old piece of flannel, from back when they knew how to make flannel that was warm. I use that. It's the only blank wall in the bedroom and there's no room to put any furniture against that wall, so that's what it's used for. And then, I do have spaces out in our living room where I can hang at least four or five small things which are usually what I do to enjoy, providing I can find a tall man to change them. I don't think they'll allow me on a step ladder any more.

PS: No. What do you think makes a great quilt?

RD: Good workmanship. Good choice of fabrics that go together. And carry out whatever idea the quilter had, providing if they had--if you go to a show and the quilter said I did this because of so-and-so. I think that's important.

PS: What makes a quilt artistically powerful?

RD: Don't ask me. I'm not an artist.

PS: Well, I think you are. I think you are. What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a specialized collection?

RD: Uniqueness, for one thing. Age for another. Well, it wouldn't be meaningful in the historic sense, not to you personally, but maybe to your area, your town, your city. Maybe it was the first of this that was done in your city or some person made something and earned a lot of money for making it, like a quilt that sells for four or five figures.

PS: Like this quilt, your anniversary quilt, your guild anniversary quilt.

RD: Yeah, that means a lot to me and it probably wouldn't mean much to a person who wasn't familiar with the history of the guild. I like to look back at it and say, 'Well you did learn a little by practice.'

PS: What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special--I just asked you that. I'm sorry. What makes a great quiltmaker?

RD: I want to add something to that category.

PS: Okay.

RD: Twice this aviation organization that I belong to [Experimental Aviation Association.] asked each year for quilt blocks for a display that had to do with aviation. And for two different years I entered a block. They both were accepted. I got honorable, maybe it was fifth honorable mention on the first one which was Harriett Quimby and her Bleriot, a World War I era--before World War I era-airplane, consisting mostly of wire and wood, which I embroidered. That was accepted and displayed for a year in their museum at Oshkosh [Wisconsin.]. And the second time we live under the flight path of the A-10's which were previously stationed at our airport. You hear this loud noise and ah. And then one of our guild members' husband was over in Iraq and he had A-10's tied in with his service. So I got the idea to make a tribute to the A-10. I found a silhouette of one because they're rather difficult to make. Airplane pieces show up. It was a silhouette against a sunset and at the bottom that was a dividing line. On one side I showed Michigan--green grass, nice river, green trees and tents, vacation-type tents. Then there was a dividing line and on the other side was Iraq. I talked to the gentleman involved and asked him what the soil was like. He says, 'It's flat and dirty.' So I found the dirtiest looking fabric and he described to me the double layered tents that they used in the dessert. They air conditioned the tents to keep the guys from melting. His wife very graciously cut off the badge, the squadron badge off of one of his shirts that he had worn in Iraq. And I put that on.

PS: Oh. What a gift.

RD: It won fifth place, so I went up in the world a little bit. But, that might not--yeah, it's an airplane. It's nice, but it was associated with our time. And they are the ugliest things that only, you've heard the expression, 'so ugly that only a mother could love.' But, those planes--I called the thing “War Tested Wart Hog" because I've heard of instances when we had troops that were faced with a machine gun nest or some other thing like that, they call for A-10's. A-10's come in and poof--gone. So they were very effective. Maybe ugliness is not necessarily a disqualification for usefulness.

PS: True. What makes a great quiltmaker?

RD: A patient person, for one thing, because these are not things you can hurry. Except if your daughter's having a baby in two weeks and you haven't made a quilt, you might hurry then. And besides, I think Steve is right. Enjoy the process. Steve is our new choir director. I mentioned him before, I think. There are so many steps to go through and sometimes you run into a snag. Sometimes things are just not working; you have to put it down until you get a bright idea or your fingers can control the needle and make it stitch straight. Can't even talk straight today. Anyway, it's just that kind of a process. It takes time and if you hurry you'll be sorry.

PS: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

RD: I like historic-type quilts. I like--well, modern art quilts and done by machine are gorgeous but somehow they don't appeal to me as much as something that is part of our past. Like it was interesting on a project I worked on recently, tracing patterns. How old some of them were and there was one in particular that was called the Newest One that they had located. They were talking about an era from 1910 to 1935 that was the earliest one known in their area which was in Kansas. Well, Gettysburg, Adams County, they had one quilt gone into their quilt show evaluation dated back to 1830 so it just took time for patterns to travel West with the pioneers.

PS: Which artists have influenced you?

RD: I don't think I could pick out a particular one. I used to use a lot of Gwen Marston and Joe Cunningham's patterns. They did a book together called “American Beauties," rose and tulip quilts. And they have done research which I found very interesting, too.

PS: How did you feel about machine versus hand quilting?

RD: I think my attitude has come through. Machine quilting is beautiful and if that is the way you like to do things, fine. But that's what is so nice about quilting. If you want to make quilts out of burlap bags or whatever and you want to do that, fine. We're a rather broadminded group of people and I can enjoy things that I would not enjoy doing myself. And so I think we have people in our group that have done absolutely marvelous work and I admire them for that. But, I feel that a machine between you and the product takes away some of the uniqueness and something of what makes it your work.

PS: What about longarm quilting?

RD: I've seen some beautiful longarm quilting, but frankly I can't afford it. And also my projects are usually small enough to be hand quilted. And so I hand quilt it. I think I can truthfully say that I do not have any machine quilting as such. I can't afford to have it done. It's beautiful, but, I'm not in that big a hurry.

PS: Why is quiltmaking important to your life?

RD: It gives me something to do with my hands. My reputation in this church among the ladies especially, is that when we had more active women's groups, I never was without something to do with my hands. It was knitting or maybe I was working on a quilt thing, and I kept myself awake during the meetings. By doing that sort of thing I find my hands need to be doing something. Maybe I'll stave off arthritis if I keep on doing something.

PS: In what ways do your quilts reflect your community or region?

RD: Well, I don't know if this area is any different from most areas. We are a less historic area than the East Coast, so we do not go back as far in history as the East Coast does, in quilting as in anything else. But I think like that Michigan is a mitten is influential. I did something for--I don't remember which one it was now. I made a quilt. It had to do with Michigan and I put the shape of Michigan as the label on the back, along with a pin that had a robin on it, the state bird and what not. And some quilts have been inspired by--have pine trees and robins and apple trees and things of that nature, that people have used in their quilts.

PS: What do you think of the importance of quilts in American life?

RD: Well, it certainly is not what it used to be. When quilts were made in the first place, a sort of quilting, back as far back as the age of Chivalry, when they wore all that clanking armor and there was some kind of quilted, padded stuff that they wore underneath. And they padded the curtains around their beds just to keep from freezing to death. And then, of course, the pioneers had to use what fabric they had available. Much of it they did themselves, grew the fibers, and spun it, wove it. Everything. So, now quilts are used more as art and they are being treated like art. You don't take them on a picnic or let the baby crawl around and spit up on them. Or the dog. I hope I don't offend any dog owners by that.

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

RD: It was something that they were almost expected to do. It was acceptable for women to quilt, but to do other things was not acceptable, in the eyes of the men, who were the controlling factor in the situation. Women who started their own business or did something outside the sphere of domestic duties were--they had a pretty hard time of it. And so I think that quilting now is not a necessity. It's something that a woman can do and enjoy and have a lovely product to use and expect that it isn't going to be worn out right away.

PS: How do you think quilts can be used?

RD: It depends on what kind of quilt it is. If you make one out of delicate fabric like they used to do with the crazy quilts, you put it on the top of the piano and if you make one out of old jeans, now you let the kids take it on a picnic. So a quilt can serve a lot of purposes and you make the quilt to suit the purpose.

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

RD: One thing is that they must be appreciated. You don't think of them as that old thing you can use and throw away. And you put so much of yourself in them that if something happens to that you feel diminished. Part of you is disregarded. You aren't appreciated. But, boy, that is a hard feeling. A lot of people, I think, suffer from that in this modern day and age. It causes more difficulties. Should we appreciate them for the purpose for which they are made. If they are going to be art, fine. If they will be more practical, that's fine.

PS: What has happened to the quilts that you have made? Or those of friends and families?

RD: Well, I cannot speak for the quilts that I have made for my nephews, nieces, great nephews and nieces. They probably have been worn out, but I know they have been used. I've made them for wedding presents and I hope that the recipients have treasured them. One of the first pieces and one of the first contacts I had with the guild, was that my niece, Sally, was getting married and I wanted to make her something. And so I got a book, and I think it was “It's Okay if You Sit on My Quilt" or something like that and I made the quilt for her for her wedding. And I had a question about it and at that time the guild was quilting a raffle quilt in a public place. So I took my piece and went up and asked if they could help me out with it. So they said what I was doing was just fine and I finished it and gave it to her for a wedding present. And she came back some years later and she was very vehement that my quilts should not be thrown away. If something happened she wanted to see them kept in the family and treasured. So I thought that was the way it should be. They should mean something to do the family.

PS: What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?

RD: Time is a problem. Materials are available, much more so than they used to be. There are time-saving techniques. If you need those things. But, I'm still kind of old fashioned.

PS: Is there anything else that you'd like to talk about or bring up?

RD: I can't think of anything. Maybe you have something you are curious about. We don't know each other all that well.

PS: Well, we will.

RD: I definitely feel better acquainted to do this.

PS: Thank you, Rosemary.

[the interview ended at 11:19 a.m.]


“Rosemary Davidson,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 16, 2024,