Nancy Woods Lyons




Nancy Woods Lyons


Nancy Woods Lyons talks about her personal background. She says she was always surrounded by quilts growing up because her grandmother quilted. One of the quilts, the Snowball quilt, was featured in John Rice Irwin's "A People and Their Quilts" where it was labeled as unidentified. The pattern for the quilt came out in Charleston Daily Mail and was called Snowball. Lyons started her first quilt, The Roman Stripe, at 10 years old. Lyons says she heard about Cardinal Quilters through the "Quilter's Newsletter Magazine." She met the Cardinal Quilters in the 1970's and joined other groups like Hayfield and Springfield Quilters Unlimited and the Virginia Consortium of Quilters (VCQ).




Quilt community
Quilted goods
Quilt design


Nancy Woods Lyons


Evelyn Salinger
Ruth Duncan

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Nancy O'Bryant Puentes


Fairfax, Virginia

Interview indexer

Interview indexed by Ta'mya Ross with the support of the Virginia Quilt Museum


Evelyn Salinger


Evelyn Salinger: (ES) Good morning.

Nancy Lyons: (NL) Good morning.

ES: Today is May 10th [2004.] and we are interviewing Nancy Wood Lyons for the Q.S.O.S. [Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories.] project. Her number is 22302.012. Present is Ruth Duncan, scribe. Interviewer is Evelyn Salinger. It is 10:50 in the morning, on Monday morning, and we are in Fairfax, Virginia. Hi again, Nancy.

NL: Hi.

ES: It is very nice of you to agree to come today to be interviewed. Actually, you will be the final person in our group of 12 active members of the Cardinal Quilters [of Alexandria, Virginia.] that we are interviewing. So, we want to know where you were from originally and how you came to Washington.

NL: Well, I have been honored to be asked to do this.

ES: Thank you.

NL: I was born in Tennessee on my grandparents' farm. I lived there until I was about 5 years old. We moved to West Virginia, Fayette County. And I lived there until I started high school.

Ruth Duncan (RD): Where in Tennessee?

NL: In Jefferson county. In Jefferson City, east Tennessee. And in West Virginia we lived in Montgomery. And then we moved to Virginia in 1944.

ES: Where in Virginia?

NL: Fredericksburg. That was Stafford County, across the river from Fredericksburg. I went to high school there, the three years I went to high school. And I graduated on my 17th birthday from high school and went into nurse's training at Alexandria Hospital in 1948. And I have lived there ever since.

ES: And your family is made up of what members? Your nuclear family, your parents, any siblings?

NL: I have three brothers. One older and two much younger. We stay in close contact.

ES: You moved all these times for what reason?

NL: Back in the thirties we lived where my father had a job. And when he didn't have a job, then they lived at my grandparents' farm.

ES: That's understandable.

NL: That's why, when we moved to West Virginia, Dad had a job in West Virginia and in Virginia, the same thing.

ES: I see. After your nurse's training, you said you worked here in Alexandria?

NL: I worked at Alexandria Hospital. Took time off to have a couple of children.

ES: And how about a husband?

NL: [laughter.] Yes. I met my husband on a blind date. He retired as a captain in the Alexandria Fire Department. After I had two children, I stayed home a few years. I did dressmaking—and quilting. Then I had another child, and I went back to work. I worked either at the hospital or doctors' offices until she finished college.

ES: Good for you. What are your earliest memories of quilting?

NL: I was always surrounded by quilts. My grandmother quilted.

RD: Which grandmother?

NL: My mother's, well both my grandmothers because that's why I have this pink and white quilt. That's the only thing I have. Both my grandmothers worked on it. My grandmother Wood died in 1935. She had started this. She had cancer. And after her death, my dad found the pieces in the trash can.

ES: Oh.

NL: And he scooped them up, took them back to Tennessee, and my mother's mother finished the quilt. It's the only thing I have of my grandmother Wood's.

ES: And that is this pink and white quilt here? [indicating the smaller quilt of two.] No?

NL: That's the Snowball quilt.

ES: The Snowball quilt. Okay.

NL: I have the original pattern for that. And incidentally, there's a book out by John Rice Irwin, "A People and Their Quilts." [1984.] It's a large paperback book and it's about quilters and their stories. And he shows a lot of quilts. And he shows that quilt and he says it was unidentified.

ES: Oh, my.

NL: But the pattern for it came out in the Charleston [West Virginia.] Daily Mail, and it was called Snowball. I've also seen it called Snowball Wreath.

ES: Is it signed?

NL: No, it is not signed. My grandmother Dockery in Tennessee finished that and quilted it in 1940. And she did the quilting herself.

ES: Beautiful. Let's describe it a little bit. It's not the usual Snowball. It's several snowballs in a circle.

NL: And if you'll notice, they're all going in different directions.

ES: Each circle has its 4 wedges, and each one is set differently in a circle with a green leaf in between. That's really lovely. And would you say the size of the block is what? 16 inches? Something like that, just for people to know.

NL: [She measures by hand.] I think about sixteen.

ES: And it's on a white background. Lovely stitches.

RD: It is interesting that the colors in the snowballs are not kept at the same angle. But they are varied.

ES: That's what she said. Each one turns like balls are being rolled around the circle. That's very nice.

NL: I have made that same quilt with a rosebud print.

ES: The same four parts per ball?

NL: Yes, but when I finished the block, I didn't have enough to make it large enough, so I stripped the blocks. I put a strip of green between each of these blocks and ironically, I bought the material for the stripping quite a few years after I had bought the original green. And it matched--perfectly.

ES: You're lucky. That's one of those serendipitous things.

NL: So that other quilt is much larger. The one that I made took a second prize at the Virginia State Fair the year that I entered it.

ES: That's wonderful.

NL: One of my daughters has it.

ES: Very good. When did you embark on your very first quilt yourself?

NL: This little one I started when I was about 10 years old.

ES: The little one you are referring to is in this magazine [here at hand.] called--

RD: The Roman Stripe. [pattern.]

NL: Roman Stripe.

ES: Called, [reading it.] Quilts, Patchwork, Appliqué and Quilting. Price 10 cents. [laughter.]

RD: 1942 was it?

NL: Yes.

ES: So that one was, as you say, a Roman Stripe. So that one is missing still, you said.

NL: It's at my home, but I just don't know where it is. My mother gave me the pieces. I cut them out and sewed them together.

This pink and white quilt [indicating the little one at hand.] was really the first one that I ever really made. I had one that my daddy's Aunt Nannie had made for me as a child and it was worn out. And I was having my first child and I wanted to make the quilt. I just drew the pattern off, I didn't have a pattern to go by. I had to make my own from this other quilt. I was hoping for a little girl but I got a boy.

ES: Uh-huh.

NL: But that's the quilt that, when the children were ill, on the couch, that's what they had to lay under. And when they went to the doctor's office, if they were sick, they were wrapped in that quilt.

ES: That's a very special quilt, then.

NL: So then my oldest daughter wanted it for her children for the same reason. But then after a few years I rescued it back because she was going to destroy it if I didn't.

ES: Oh. What year did you say that was made?

NL: It was made in 1951.

ES: 1951. My, you have been quilting over a half century.

NL: I'm sorry. That's a mistake. 1953. I was married in 1951.

ES: So you have been quilting for just over a half century. That is wonderful. So did you continue making quilts after this was done, or did you have a hiatus during raising children or something?

NL: No, I think I kept something going all the time.

ES: Where do your quilts go? Do they go to various members of the family?

NL: Well, one thing. I quilted tops that my grandmother had not finished. When my mother died in 1977, she left 10 unfinished quilt tops. And I haven't finished all of those yet. The first three I finished very rapidly, they were nearly finished. And I gave one to each of my brothers. I also quilted quilts that my grandmother had not finished, that she meant for my brothers to have.

ES: So, each of your family members has a few good things.

NL: They have quilts that our grandmother made, quilts that our mother made.

ES: And quilts that you made.

NL: And quilts that I made.

ES: That's wonderful. And how about your daughters? Are they quilting? Has it passed down in the family?

NL: No.

ES: Has it passed down in the family?

NL: No. [laughter.] They want me to make them for them.

RD: Well, you set a very high standard for sewing, so--I remember not only your quilts, which are outstanding, but you made your daughters' wedding gowns.

ES: Would you tell us about that? The wedding gowns?

NL: Well. I told them that I'd like to make their wedding gowns. But if they did not want what I could make them, they were welcome to buy their own. [laughter.] So they took me up on it. And they told me what they wanted. We looked at pictures and I created the dresses.

ES: Very nice.

RD: They were exquisite. Absolutely exquisite. They had lace inset.

NL: Well, they were silk. I bought the things at G Street in Rockville. And when I had them dry-cleaned, when I told them that I had made them, they were not sure that they could dry-clean them, until I told them the fabrics and lace and beads had come from G Street.

ES: I see. They allowed cleaning.

NL: They were cleaned.

ES: Good. So do you do a lot of other sewing besides quilting?

NL: I've always sewed my own clothes. I sewed my daughters' clothes. My oldest daughter was so small around, that I would have to buy a pattern and tuck it top to bottom to make it small enough around so I made all her clothes--coats, everything. I made my son's shirts when he was in school, because he did not want to button and unbutton buttons, so I put zippers down the front.

ES: Oh, my. [laughter.] What is your favorite part of quilting?

NL: The quilting.

ES: You like the quilting process.

NL: I'd rather quilt than put the tops together.

[Afterwards in conversation, Nancy said she liked appliqué best (versus piecing).]

ES: And how long do you take to do a quilt? If you are working straight at it.

NL: I don't know.

ES: How much of your time is spent quilting?

NL: I quilt in the evenings. It keeps me from eating. It's a diet. You can't quilt with sticky fingers.

ES: Oh, very good.

NL: And because I quilt on a hoop--

RD: Both hands are busy. That's the other thing.

NL: And so, I quilted two quilts last winter in the RV. One before Christmas, one from the first of November to the end of December.

ES: That's pretty fast.

NL: So that was what, about 6 weeks. And the other one took a little longer.

ES: When you piece the tops, though, you always do it by hand?

NL: Mostly, yes.

ES: And all your quilting is by hand.

NL: I can't machine quilt.

ES: Where do you find your patterns? Where do you get your ideas?

NL: Everywhere. I have a bookcase with two shelves of quilt books.

ES: I see.

NL: Plus the magazines.

ES: Have you ever taught anybody else how to quilt?

NL: No. I'm not a teacher. I'm a doer. I'm a follower.

ES: Have you entered into various other contests and shows?

NL: I've been in lots of contests. I haven't won the judges' choice, but I've won the viewers' choice and I've won Best in Show and I've won first prize.

ES: Wonderful.

NL: Second prize.

RD: State fair?

NL: [Virginia.] State fair. And the viewers' choice was at Belle Grove. I had a Bride's Quilt and they hung it over a mantel. It was beautiful.

ES: Oh. Uh-huh.

NL: My daughter has about destroyed it.

ES: What do you mean by a Bride's Quilt?

NL: It was called the Bride's Quilt. It was a large wreath with flowers around the edge and hearts in the center, and hearts where the blocks joined.

ES: Uh-huh. That's interesting. How did you find out about Cardinal Quilters and when did you begin with that group?

NL: I used to take--years ago, I started almost at the beginning--the Quilter's Newsletter [Magazine.], and they would talk about the quilt clubs. And I couldn't find one. And then I read in the paper one day something about some quilters' meeting at the library. And I called Beth Ford and found out about it and jumped in.

ES: When was that, approximately? Like at the very beginning?

RD: 1970-what? I know you were there in '79 when I met the quilters.

NL: The club was a year or so old. I was in there sometime in the 70's.

ES: Were you ever an officer in the group?

NL: No.

ES: Do you want to tell why? You have said you have been going to Florida for many years.

NL: Since the late Seventies we started going to Florida every winter, so I have missed out on a lot. But at one time I was in Cardinals, Hayfield, Springfield QU [Quilters Unlimited.] and the VCQ. And I enjoyed all of them.

ES: Uh-huh.

NL: I learned a lot. But with traveling, I couldn't and it got to the point where not many of the people went to the VCQ any more. And I really did not want to do those long drives by myself. Charles [my husband.] went with me a couple of times, but it was boring for him.

ES: Is VCQ usually done in another place? I'm not quite sure.

RD: VCQ is always done in another place; except for once or twice we had it here. In Alexandria.

NL: Yes.

RD: But the point of VCQ, which is the Virginia Consortium of Quilters, is for quilters all over the state to meet. And so they meet in different cities all over the state. And they got to be very large. I was a member too, for a number of years, but I found that I was more interested in doing my own thing in the end, so I lost interest, as I think you did, Nancy.

NL: Well, I guess I wasn't interested in new techniques. You'd have classes, but that would be the end of it. I would not follow up on any of it but I enjoyed the lectures, I enjoyed the show 'n tell. I tried joining a quilt club in Florida. It was a part of NQA [National Quilting Association.]. It was a large guild. But no one ever spoke to me. It was a cliquey thing and everyone had their own little bunch of friends, and they all came together and they didn't seem to welcome other people in. And after two years, I just dropped out.

RD: That's too bad. It's their loss.

NL: They put on a nice quilt show. I go to it every year, but I don't wish to be a part of them.

ES: That's understandable. I am going to ask you, do you do any other crafts besides the sewing craft? [There's probably not much time left.]

NL: No, just cooking.

ES: Do you like to travel?

NL: I love to travel.

ES: I see that you have something from Alaska on you. What sort of traveling do you do?

NL: Well, we have been to Alaska. We've taken the train tour, we've taken the ship tour, we've been to Hawaii. We've been to England and Scotland, twice. We've cruised the Caribbean. We've done everything.

ES: Good. And in the country here, you have an RV that takes you around.

NL: Yes.

ES: It sounds like fun.

RD: So when they go to Florida, they have their house with them.

ES: You have your house on your back.

NL: Yes. Behind us. [laughter.]

ES: That's good. I have a couple of general questions we always ask people. When you see a quilt, what makes a quilt outstanding? What do you look for when you are looking at a quilt?

NL: I like the hand quilting. And I see a lot of them in the quilt shows, that there is a minimal amount of quilting on them. I think they would look much nicer if there was more quilting, other than just a little bit scattered around. I don't care for this all over machine quilting. Some of it is pretty, but most of it isn't.

ES: And the other thing we always ask is, how do you feel that quilting has been a part of the American woman's life?

NL: Well, for a long time it was the only way a woman had to express her artistic ability. Women were not really recognized for what they could do other than raise children and keep a house. But it was like the Amish. The Amish were so restricted what they could do or what they could use, that it came out in their quilting. And they did beautiful work.

ES: Could you add any other memories about quilt activities that you've done over the years? Things that stand out. People you have met.

NL: Well, I met Ginny Beyer. She did a workshop for Cardinals years ago. Ann Oliver did a workshop. I enjoyed her. Betty Boyink did a workshop for us. That was nice when someone came to us. It was our own little group, rather than going into a large gathering.

ES: That's nice. Any other memories of your family or friends who have done quilts?

NL: My mother's mother, my grandmother, both my grandmothers quilted. But the one that I remember is my Tennessee grandmother, because we always had quilts for our bedcovers. And I have had a quilt that she made for me that was a Sunbonnet Girl, but it wasn't the Sunbonnet Girl that you usually see. This one's holding a flower in her hand. And it had two flowers growing at her feet. And my grandmother Dockery made the quilt using my dress pieces. And she gave it to me when I was 10 years old. She paid Kate Jackson, next door, five dollars to quilt that quilt for her.

ES: Oh, boy.

NL: In 1941. And when I went away to school, my mother let my brothers roll up on the floor and they just literally destroyed my quilt.

ES: Oh. That's a sad thing.

NL: But I have made that same quilt for both my daughters.

ES: Oh, good.

NL: And I have one that I made for my first granddaughter. But my daughter does not take care of things and neither does that granddaughter. And she's 14 years old and she still doesn't have that quilt.

ES: You are going to save it until she is 'of age'?

NL: But I have a daughter in Kentucky, and I make things for her, wall hangings and quilts. She takes care of things.

ES: So your family has benefited greatly. They all sleep under quilts, probably all the time, as you do.

NL: I have quilts on all the beds. I have quilts under all the beds. [laughter.] I have quilts in the closets. [more laughter.] And I have unfinished quilts.

ES: And that is a hard thing for us. That feeling that things are unfinished.

NL: And I made one special Star quilt for my son. And then a young man, not a young man, younger than me I should say, I guess Jimmy's in his 40's, he built a room for us. And I made him a Lone Star quilt.

ES: How nice. That's very special. Is there anything else we should have covered today, that you'd like to tell us about your quilting history?

NL: I don't think so. I'm still quilting.

ES: That's wonderful.

NL: Not as well as I used to. In the past, what I have enjoyed doing was quilting the old tops. And I have done a lot of those for other people.

RD: You have quilted a lot for other people, I know, over the years.

NL: But I can't do it any more. My vision isn't that good and I have arthritis in my hand and my quilting stitches are embarrassing.

ES: But they are better than most.

NL: You haven't seen what I have been doing lately.

ES: Okay. Well, thank you so much for agreeing to do the interview as we said, and it has been very interesting.

NL: Thank you for having me.

[An additional comment after the tape was shut off. Discussing the qualities of a quilter:

NL: You have your sewing background and your artistic background and this quilting is the artistic taking over. You find what you like to do and do it.]

Interview Keyword

Quilt shows/exhibitions
Quilting community
Women in quiltmaking
Generational quiltmaking
Virginia Consortium of Quilters (VCQ)
Quilt magazines
Quilt designs
Cardinal Quilters
Gender roles

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“Nancy Woods Lyons,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed April 13, 2024,