Harriett DeRose




Harriett DeRose




Harriett DeRose


Pam Schultz

Interview Date


Interview sponsor


Battle Creek, Michigan


Pam Schultz (PS): This is Pam Schultz. It's February 16, [2010.] at 2:44 p.m. and I'm interviewing Harriett DeRose today at the Art Center in Battle Creek [Michigan.] This interview is being conducted for the South Central Michigan Quilters' Save our Stories project of The Alliance for American Quilts. How are you today, Harriett?

Harriett DeRose (HD): I'm great, thank you.

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

HD: The quilt's name is "MiLady Wearing Hat". My inspiration was from my quilting guild that we challenged each of us to make a self portrait. I made a self portrait a year ago when I was diagnosed with cancer and it looked totally different than "MiLady Wearing Hat". This year I'm cancer free and this summer I decided to make another self portrait, which I did, and that's what I'm showing today.

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

HD: Well, for me it's a symbol of hope and celebration. It also, technique wise, is a quilt that I've made solely by hand and it's crudely embroidered. There's no machine stitching and it has meaning because it has flowers, which I love. It has a peace sign--which, I like peace--and it shows hope. And I'm cancer free, so it is a celebration for me and I like looking at her. She's a happy quilt.

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

HD: Because of the meaning that she has for me.

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

HD: Well, I think the quilt is a play on color and I love different colors. I like putting different colors in quilts. And I'm wearing different colors. My clothes don't always match. I like using the color wheel, which I did here. I tried to work with dimension as opposed to having everything one dimensional. I extended the hat off the quilt. The flowers that I made are out of--well, are three dimensional and the stems are three dimensional. I added embellishments on the quilt, which also adds more dimension.

PS: What are your plans for this quilt?

HD: This one isn't for sale. I'm going to keep her. I've talked about putting her in a show with my other, the previous self portrait. In Sacred Threads--there are a couple of other quilt shows that show hope, other Cancer Society. But I haven't done anything like that so I'm still--I may do nothing with it. Just enjoy it.

PS: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

HD: You want a history of my quiltmaking? Or--

PS: Sure.

HD: --okay. I started years ago, let's see, back in 1978, when I made a quilt when I was going through my divorce. I took any scratch of fabric that I could find. They didn't match. It was a crazy quilt. I had polyester. I had cotton. I had knits. It was horrible, but, it brought me great joy. And I'm still using that quilt. It has special meaning because, again, it gave me hope. Quilting has been with women forever and when we need to find solace; when we need to find a purpose, many of us turn to fabrics and fiber and sewing and creating. And that's what I did. From that point I did take a quilt class that got me started. I learned how from a local woman here in Battle Creek named Lynn Evans and I learned the basics of quiltmaking. Really, intuitively I seemed to know more than I thought I did. I have a background in sewing and I used to sew clothes. I was a ten-year 4-Her so I've been working with fabric a long time. My mother was a 4-H sewing teacher and she used to help us sew. And then I just have been quilting ever since then. I've taken additional classes to learn different techniques. I've been fortunate enough to go to some of the well-known quilters in the country. I've learned from them. You take away what you like, what's important to you and then you kind of mix them all together and come up with your own style. I feel that's what I've done.

PS: How old were you when you started quilting?

HD: Thirty.

PS: Thirty.

HD: So it's been thirty years. I'm sixty-one now.

PS: How many hours a week do you quilt?

HD: Before I got my loom [both laugh.] I was quilting probably three or four hours a week. Depending on the week, I might spend two or three full days in my studio. But now that I'm weaving I haven't done as much quilting as I have in the past. It's kind of taken a back seat, although I have projects to do and I'm in varying degrees of completion on these projects. But I'll get back to it. I rotate between my hobbies.

PS: What is your first quilt memory?

HD: Probably "My Mental Health Quilt." The one I made in '78 which I named "My Mental Health Quilt."

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

HD: Oh, I have lots of quilting friends. I have quilting family. My mother was a quilter, although she didn't start until I started. She remembers her mother quilting, but I didn't see any of those quilts. I really don't have any history of quilts other than when I started. My sister is an art quilter. I have another sister, so I have two sisters that quilt. And then we have cousins that quilt. I come from a family of sewers and quilters.

PS: How does quiltmaking impact your family?

HD: Well, they may not get dinner. They enjoy my art. They enjoy my--they think I'm very creative. They're my biggest fans and they encourage me to continue my art. They're very proud.

PS: That's great

HD: It's a little embarrassing at times.

PS: Have you ever used quilts to get through a difficult time?

HD: Oh, yes. My divorce, back in '78 and then almost every time there's been a death in the family I end up turning to my studio. When I had cancer I made six or seven quilts that helped me get through my cancer. When I'm sad, when I need a pick-me-up I usually go to my studio. If I'm not able to quilt then I go into withdrawals. I need to get back into the studio. So it's just part of who I am and what I do. It's part of my life.

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

HD: My sister and I, we had challenged ourselves to do a self portrait and we were using McCaffrey's [Bonnie McCaffrey.] style where she paints the faces. We've gotten her book and we were going to paint our face. You take a picture, a close up picture, with a camera and then you trace that. You enlarge it and then you trace it, and then you paint it. You don't put any hair. You just do the facial features, your cheek bones, your mouth and, oh, it was awful. We just both--we didn't think we were very pretty. And we both went into this funk. It was 'Oh, my gosh. This is what we look like?' And, yet it was what we looked like. And so we finally--Cheryl, my sister, ended up making hers into a mermaid and she had herself under water, so it faded her face. I ended up not doing anything with mine for, oh, six or eight months and then finally I just decided that I--my mother used--oh, and I reminded myself of my mother. But she used to always say 'I never promised you a rose garden.' So I covered everything on my face, except for my eyes, with flowers. And we laughed and laughed over that so that was a funny story.

PS: You guys should show those together somewhere.

HD: No.

PS: What do you find pleasing about quiltmaking?

HD: Oh, I get in a zone. I just forget. I could just spend hours and not even know I've spent hours. I just get in a zone. I find it very therapeutic. I find it fun. I find it challenging. All of the above.

PS: What aspects of quiltmaking do you not enjoy?

HD: I like the creative part the most and by the time I finish a quilt I'm ready to get it out of my way. I like the finish product once I'm there, but you spend a lot of time and a lot of energy on these quilts and I'm ready to move on.

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

HD: I belong to the Cal-Co quilt group [Cal-Co Quilters' Guild.] in Battle Creek. I belong to Syncopated Threads. It's a sub-group of that Cal-Co Quilters. I belong to the Silver Tree Quilters in Sutton's Bay [Michigan.]. And I belong to Quilters Unlimited in Fort Meyers, Florida.

PS: That's cool. Quilters Unlimited? [HD hums agreement.] In Florida? How have advances in technology affected your work?

HD: Well, the sewing machines just keep getting better and better. That's probably--oh, and just there's so many talented artists out there. And the fact that we have the computers and the web to see this art. It just stimulates you. It makes you want to challenge yourself to do more. I guess the computer probably, and then the sewing machines because they just get better and better.

PS: What are your favorite techniques and materials?

HD: I still like to piece quilts, but I won't match points or corners. I like the sewing aspect of it. Although it takes a lot of time to do that, so I am also quite fond of fusion, because you can do things faster. I like the technique on "MiLady Wearing Hat" because you just lay fabrics down on top of each other and it's kind of a collage type technique. But I do all kinds of techniques and I incorporate them all into one quilt. I don't have a specific technique that I use. And that's what I've learned from some of the workshops that I've attended. You don't need to follow one technique. Whatever works to accomplish the outcome is what I do.

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

HD: It's a mess. It's always a mess.

PS: Is it full?

HD: It's very full. I have one, two--I have two sewing machines down there. One is a Pfaff, which I like if I'm doing straight stitching. The other is my Bernina. I forget what number it is, even, but I use that for my free motion quilting. I have a serger. I have a worktable. I have three design walls. I have two closets full of fabrics and I'm overflowing, so I can't close the closet doors. Got a couple dressers down there that are full of stuff. Yeah, it's--and my exercise and my treadmill. And my treadmill's great for hanging quilts on. And I've got a table down there for my granddaughter and she's got her design wall down there.

PS: Oh, that's special. How do you balance your time?

HD: I'm very fortunate. I'm retired now and aside from my domestic duties I really don't have a lot that I have to do. So, it's pretty much whatever I feel like doing.

PS: Well, I think you covered the design wall. Do you want to talk about that anymore? How do you use it?

HD: I have one that's a cork board that I use for inspirations. I have postcards up there. I have cards. I've got calendars, some pictures that I'm looking at, thinking about for inspiration. And then I have two design walls made of Tyvek™ with flannel over the top, covering them, so that I can hang pieces that are in progress. I've got one that I'm working on next to my sewing machine, that I'm piecing right now. And the others have quilts that are finished, partially finished. So that's kind of how I use my boards.

PS: What do you think makes a great quilt?

HD: I do think technique is important. Regardless, I think techniques need to look nice. I think they need to accomplish what the artist intended to accomplish. Art is for--I believe that I create art and what people want to interpret from that art is up to them. I'm not responsible for that. So I do kinda what I want to do and then I let the viewer decide if they like it or not. And I try not to get offended by that. I think everybody sees art differently. So to say art is good or not is up to the interpreter. I don't know what else to say about that.

PS: What makes a quilt artistically powerful?

HD: For me it's color. Probably for me the most [important.] thing is color. It attracts me more than anything. Design is important, if I like the design. I tend to like something that I can make some sense out of as opposed to something being very chaotic. I like brighter colors rather than muted colors. But that, again, depends on the design. It's very personal.

PS: What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection?

HD: Whether or not the curator likes it, depending on the topic that they're discussing, or they're trying to show. Right now museums want big pieces, the bigger the better. But, I'm not sure they're always the best. I like--I'm intrigued by quilts that are three dimensional, that have all kinds of different embellishments on them that aren't fabric. But that isn't my interest. I like fabric. I want to stay with fabric and I think now quilts have become--I think they're trying to compete with the traditional art world as opposed to staying with quilts. And I find that disappointing in some ways. I'm just not interested in that type of quilt art. I don't know if that answers your question, but I'm just talking.

PS: Sure, the answer's fine. What makes a great quiltmaker?

HD: That they like it. If they're--if you can see their soul in it. I'm not the judge of what makes a good quiltmaker. I just think if they like it and if it's got three pieces, three layers to it. Then it's a quilt.

PS: That's right. Whose works are you drawn to and why?

HD: [pause for 10 seconds.] I really like Hollis Chatelain's work. She is such a good artist and her mastery of the machine quilting is just phenomenal. I'd never ever aspire to be as good as she is, and she makes thousands of dollars on her pieces. But, I think, I love her work. I like Sue Benner's work and she does fusion. I love, gosh, there's so many of them. I keep coming up with blank names. Jane Sassaman. I love her work. And these are all totally different types of artists, but their work is just impeccable. And there are a whole lot more. There are just a lot of talented people out there. And you look online and there are these unknown people that you see their work and you think, 'Oh, my gosh. They're so talented.' Everywhere you look. I go to our local quilt shop or our quilt show and there is so much talent there. Every quilt is different. There's just lots of talent. I'm just really intrigued by all the talent that's out there.

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

HD: Oh, I admire people who hand quilt. And I hand quilted several quilts in my early quilting days, but I won't do that again. However, I do like the crude embroidery hand quilting with big stitches and using different threads. I like that. I like the crudeness of that. And it's all beautiful, so I like them both. I do more machine quilting than I do hand quilting now.

PS: How do you feel about longarm quilting?

HD: If I had a quilt that wanted to be done and I was going to give to my grandkids and I knew it was going to be used, I would have it longarmed. If it was a masterpiece of mine I would never have it longarmed. I think it adds a commercial quality to the quilts. That's just my opinion.

PS: Why is quiltmaking important to your life?

HD: Part of who I am. It's what I do. It's how I express myself. It's how I am creative. It challenges me. I feel accomplished. I feel like I am leaving something behind. I think it's inspiring to my grandchildren and to my children. It just brings me joy.

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

HD: I tend to make quilts that are associated--I do a lot of nature scenes and they are associated to my environment. And my environment is Michigan. I have several woods scenes that are trees, mushrooms, and my inspirations were the woods that I live in. I have one of Fishtown [Michigan.] up north. The crane--I have a Sandhill Crane that comes to my back yard every spring. So it affects me. It's usually my inspiration.

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

HD: Well, it's an art that is just connected people down through the ages for centuries. And, it's a way for, not just women, but for people to communicate. It's a way that women can relate to each other and, again, I say women because it's primarily women, but men also do it. There are some excellent men quilters. It's just an art form that has lasted through centuries. And I think that's important and I think it's important to be continued.

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

HD: I think quilters have a way of defining their environment through quilts, what's going on politically through quilts. The fabrics and the tools that they're using at the time becomes a historical marker for the time. Referring back to the previous question, I think it tells a lot about our history, about our culture, through this art form.

PS: How do you think quilts can be used?

HD: As it relates to our everyday lives? Or as it relates to history?

PS: Yeah, all of it.

HD: Well, we can use it in our everyday lives; you use it for clothing, beds, decoration. Historically we use it for information, for decoration, for--it tells our story. I guess I don't know what else to say about that. It's what we've been talking about.

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

HD: Very carefully, and I hope that there's people out there studying how to do that, because folding them up in a drawer isn't the way. I think when people have old quilts they would be wise to take it to a curator to have it stored correctly so that we can save. It's like the weaving and the Navajo blankets and fabric is a perishable, eventually, a perishable product. It's a shame when we lose this history. So, storing it correctly.

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

HD: I don't even want to think about it.

PS: Okay. I don't know. What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?

HD: Biggest challenge--I think what--I don't know how to say this exactly but I think that there are people out there who want to dictate what quilting is and should be about. I think quilting is a very personal experience and, again, as long as quilts follow the category of there are three layers, I think then the designs, the artwork is individual. And I resent people trying to dictate what that should look like for everyone. I don't know what else to say about that except I think it's a free form art and it's changing and it's evolving. I suppose it's like any other art form. There are traditionals; there are modernistic quilters and I think that should be valued and respected and enjoyed.

PS: Is there anything else you'd like to discuss?

HD; I don't know.

PS: Thank you.

HD: You're welcome.

PS: This concludes our interview and it is 3:18 p.m.


“Harriett DeRose,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 16, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2519.