Marjorie Elliott




Marjorie Elliott


Marjorie Elliott, interviewed by Ann Shibut, shares her story of quilting. She introduces a quilt she created based on her childhood memory of her father's attic, describing the fabrics, inspiration, and quilting methods. Afterwards, Elliott and Shibut discuss a variety of topics such as the qualities of a great quilter, how quilting impacts her life, and how to preserve quilts.




Quilted goods
Quiltmakers--United States
Craft and art
Craft and decorating


Marjorie Elliott


Ann Shibut

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Nancy O'Bryant Puentes


Richmond, Virginia

Interview indexer

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


Ann Shibut


Ann Shibut (AS): This is Ann Shibut and I'm conducting an interview today with Marjorie Elliott and we are starting at 2 p.m. on March 8, 2007, [in Richmond, Virginia.] and this is an interview for Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. Tell me where you're from, Marjorie.

Marjorie Elliott (ME): Well, I'm originally from Winslow, Maine, but I've been living here in Virginia for many years now. I moved here to go to college and after college my husband and I moved to Alabama for four years. Then we lived in West Virginia, but we've been back in Midlothian, Virginia since 1979.

AS: Which college did you go to?

ME: Virginia Commonwealth University.

AS: My daughter-in-law went there, too. Well, tell me about the quilt you brought today.

ME: Well, this was a quilt that I made in honor of my father's 70th birthday. My father was a dairy farmer in Maine and this just looked to me like a scene that he would have seen looking out the window of his house.

AS: Describe it.

ME: It's an Attic Window design, but it's done in perspective so it actually looks like you're standing inside the house looking out and you see the red barn and you see cows at various stages of wandering through fields, and other animals, and down at the bottom you have a young boy who has just dipped his pails in the river and is carrying them back towards the barn. In the upper panes of the window you see the blue sky and clouds and I just thought it was a good representation of what I remembered seeing in our house looking out when I was a child growing up.

AS: So this quilt has special meaning for you?

ME: Absolutely. As a matter of fact my Dad is still living, but he's in a nursing home now and when I was home last summer I decided to rescue the quilt. I wasn't sure leaving it in his empty house was a good idea. So it has come to live with me 'til he needs it again.

AS: So, do you use it at all?

ME: I do. I have it across the foot of the bed in my guest room.

AS: Well, it's very attractive. And you made this?

ME: I did. It's hand pieced and hand quilted, and the background, the backing is a striking black and white, looks like a Holstein cow background, yep, for the life of me I can't tell you exactly how long it took me to make. I probably have that written down at home but I didn't think about looking that up. I made that for his 70th birthday which was November the 26, of 1993.

AS: Did you have it ready for that occasion?

ME: Oh, I did, I did. We did go home for his birthday. As a matter of fact, all the children gathered. I have a brother and sister and we were all there in Maine for his 70th birthday. And he was quite surprised and was very emotional about having received it. He thought that wonderful that someone had taken the time to make something for him.

AS: Well, before we started taping this interview I had precipitantly asked about whether you used a panel and you started to describe a little bit about that.

ME: It actually was not a panel. It was just a fabric that had a probably, I think, a 24 inches repeat, and the blue for the water at the bottom actually was the beginning of the repeat of the sky at the top, so even though it looks like it's a stream flowing through there it really was the sky beginning to repeat. And it's not laid out in the order that the fabric actually was. Somewhere there is a spot to the left you see the rear end of a cow and if you look--I think somewhere farther over [gesturing to the right.] somewhere you see the front end of the cow. Oh, yeah, in the lower panel you see the front end of that same cow. So it wasn't really laid out in the same order. I tried to - it looks right. I had taken a class at a quilt show, and I think it might have been in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, at a quilt show that they have there annually. And I had taken a class on learning to draft the Attic Window in perspective.

AS: Ah.

ME: And in the class she had shown several examples of using fabric similar. Not a cow fabric, but I think it was a Christmas scene she had used, and I thought, 'Oh, I can do that!' and so I went home and drafted that--what I did rather than--I actually used a huge sheet of paper and drafted it out full scale and then then cut it up and used the pieces as templates for each of the pieces in the quilt.

AS: You were very successful.

ME: It did work, yes. I got thinking about it a couple of years ago and wondering if I could do it again. I actually believe I have all the template pieces that I could probably, but I'm not sure I could remember how to draft it; it's been so long since I did it.

AS: It obvious that this was not your first quilt.

ME: No, no.

AS: When did you begin? How did you learn?

ME: Well, I come from a long line of quilters. My grandmother on my father's side was a quilter, but she did everything on a treadle sewing machine. She top-stitched everything, and then she tied them with string that came off of the grain sacks that--when I was a child and we were farming you would get a hundred pounds of grain at a time and they would have string on them, and you'd pull the string off and she always saved the string, wound them into balls and then she used the strings to tie quilts.

AS: A thrifty woman.

ME: Oh she was, absolutely. And then on my mother's side, my great-grandmother was a quilter and her husband was actually a better quilter than she was, and I have a couple of tops, one that each of them made. And I started thinking about quilting when I was in high school; I think at the end of my senior year in high school that I actually started the first quilt I ever made. By that time my grandmother wasn't able to help me because her health was failing, and I got a book out of the library and I said, 'I can figure this out,' and, well, I read what the book said and I went, 'Surely they don't mean that!' [both laugh.] And I proceeded to do it the way I thought it ought to be done. So that first quilt, of course I didn't trim the seams to a quarter inch, and it was a crazy quilt, where I was flipping and sewing.

AS: [indicates understanding.]

ME: And there are some places I know there's got to be seven or eight layers of fabric in those places [both laugh.] but it's a warm quilt, I still have it, and it's probably the warmest quilt I have.

AS: I was going to ask if you still had it.

ME: I do, yes.

AS: Was it cotton, wool?

ME: It was cotton; it was all cotton. We had a shop in the local town that was a sewing center and they sold Singer sewing machines, and fabric and all sorts of things. But you could go and just buy a big bag of scraps, and that's what I would do, and I would use those. They'd be all different shapes and sizes and things, and that's what I used. They were all cottons. We also had a Hathaway shirt factory in town and you could go and buy fabric there. You could buy, you know, bags of scraps. So that's what I started quilting with.

AS: So now that you have progressed farther, do you still get to quilt a lot? How many hours a week do you work on quilts?

ME: I do it in fits and starts. I sometimes will go for months without touching anything and then I will sit down every night. My goal is to quilt at least twenty minutes every day. I usually have a quilt on the frame, which I do right now. But to be honest with you I haven't touched a quilt in several months right now. Yeah, but I'm working up to it again. [laughs.]

AS: They ask here, what is your first quilt memory?

ME: I suppose my first quilt memory would be my grandmother quilting. She had her treadle sewing machine set up in the front room of her house in front of a window where she could look out and watch the comings and going in her own yard plus who was going up and down the road. And I suppose that would be my first quilt memory. She let us sit under her treadle sewing machine and pump the treadle for her. But, of course we didn't always stop exactly when she wanted us to. [both laugh.]

AS: That could be dangerous!

ME: But she made quilts for everybody. I mean the neighbors, the children--I mean everybody got quilts when they graduated from high school, when they got married. As a matter of fact, I just recently came into possession of one of her quilts that had been with my Dad. He's now in a nursing home. Again that was a rescued quilt. Luckily I rescued it just in time because shortly after I took that quilt home with me he had a furnace issue at his house and everything was covered with soot.

AS: Oh, no.

ME: I think that quilt would not have survived if I hadn't gotten it out of the house when I did.

AS: Lucky thing.

ME: Yes, yes, yes.

AS: Have you ever used quilting to get you through a difficult time?

ME: Oh, my goodness, yes! What quilter hasn't? Absolutely. My grandmother, the one who was a quilter, had a saying and it went like this: 'When you're busy you don't think, so keep busy.' So, for me it's a keep busy kind of thing. I also spend a lot of time when I'm quilting, particularly if I'm hand quilting in the frame, listening to books on tape. So, you know that really gets your mind, if you're concentrating on the tape and you're concentrating on what you're sewing, you don't think about those things, yeah, it works very well for that.

AS: What do you find most pleasing about quilts?

ME: Gee, that's a tough question. I guess it's just the fact that I guess I'm an artist wanna-be. I would like to have been able to draw or paint or whatever, and I couldn't ever quite do that, but I can be creative with fabric, take something, take pieces of this and make it into something that looks like something.

AS: Very successfully. Well, what aspects of quilting do you not enjoy?

ME: Ah, I don't think there's anything that I don't like. I even like making binding. I've had two or three quilts machine quilted by other people and they'll say, 'Well, don't you want us to put the binding on for you?' 'Oh, no, that's my favorite part. No I don't want you to put the binding on.'

AS: They're probably surprised.

ME: They are. And they say, 'Nobody likes to make binding,' and I say, 'Yes! I do.' And I've a sister who's a quilter, too, she's only started in the last few years quilting, but they'll say to her, 'Do you want us to put the binding on?' And she goes, 'No, I like to make binding.' 'Nobody likes to make binding,' and she'll say, 'Yes, I do, and so does my sister.'

AS: Well, on a larger scale, what do you think makes a great quilt? What appeals to you? What do you most look for or

ME: A few years ago I would have said anything that was a traditional pattern. I must admit I have a great admiration for women who can do this really magnificent machine quilting. Although I'm not a machine quilter myself. I like to do everything by hand because I think for me that's the rewarding part of the process, but when I see some of these magnificent machine quilted quilts I don't have a clue how they do that. And I think, how do they get all that fabric under that tiny machine? And a lot of them do it on just regular sewing machines; they don't have the large longarm machines. I really admire people who can do that.

AS: So it sounds to me as though it's the quilting itself that really appeals to you?

ME: It is, although I enjoy the piecing, too. It's not just the--I'm thrilled when I get a top all put together, but I do enjoy the hand quilting process even though it is very, very time consuming, and it takes me forever. I mean sometimes I'll have a quilt on the frame for a couple of years, because you know at twenty minutes at a pop it takes a long time to get it done.

AS: What do you think makes a quilt artistically powerful? [after a long pause.] Perhaps it will help if you think of one that you didn't think was artistically powerful, and why it was not.

ME: I think it's probably the dramatic use of color more than anything else. I guess for me the ones that are more appealing are much more intricate. I particularly like story quilts. I've had one in my head for a long time. I can't seem to get it out. [laughs.] And I can't get it into fabric, but I just have this idea that one of these days I'm going to make a Wizard of Oz quilt. It seems to be a story quilt that I've been saving fabric, and I have lots of Wizard of Oz books that I've thought, 'Oooh, I like this picture and I can make this in fabric.'

AS: So you'd try to capture – it wouldn't be just one scene from the story?

ME: Yes. It'd be sort of a collage of scenes.

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

ME: I think there are redeeming values in every quilt. I think there are different things that make different quilts. There are older quilts that may not be so well done in terms of the actual workmanship, but there may be significant fabrics in them, historical fabrics, colors, things that you'd want to save in your collection just because of the fabric itself. I guess workmanship. I think that if you've got beautiful hand quilting that ought to be preserved. Ah, and then-- [pondering.]

AS: What comes to my mind [inaudible.]

ME: Well yes, sometimes, absolutely.

AS: And we've touched on this before, how do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting?

ME: Well, initially, at least my first reaction was 'That's not a quilt; it's all done by machine.' Machine quilting first started coming into its own [inaudible.] but I have rapidly changed my opinion on that having just tried doing some machine quilting on some small pieces, and realizing how extremely difficult that is. Short of just doing straight grid work. I can manage that, but some of these beautiful feathers and these flowing patterns that I see, the puzzle piece things. I don't have a clue how people accomplish that. So I have a much greater appreciation for machine quilting than I used to, and I'm not above having quilts done professionally if I think machine quilting is what it needs.

AS: What makes a great quilter?

ME: The first thing that came to mind when you said that was someone who's willing to share their talent. I don't even think it's so much what they produce as the fact that they're willing to share any hints that they have, or they don't say 'That's my secret, I'm not going to share because if I give it away somebody else will do it.' No, it's someone who really shares all that information with you, teaching you how to do things that you didn't know how to do before.

AS: Have you run into some quilters who were grasping with their techniques?

ME: I don't, people I've encountered personally, no, I haven't, but--

AS: In other fields--

ME: It happens, right. I suppose it would happen, no, I personally haven't run into any like that, but then again some of the professionals I don't know personally so I don't know it that's how they react or not.

AS: There's the copyright issue.

ME: Yes, right, for sure.

AS: Now, this question that they have here, how can you answer? How do great quilters learn the art of quilting, especially how to design a pattern or choose fabrics and color?

ME: You take classes and you glean all the information you can from others around you, but I think for having a color sense and those sorts of things, I think that's just inherent. Either you have it or you don't have it. My sister is a beautiful, beautiful seamstress and she sews beautiful quilts, but she struggles terribly with color. She's always thrilled at Christmas when I send her a quilt kit that everything is all picked out and she doesn't have to try to think about it. I think she's dying to develop a sense of color, but it's not something that she just has. Some people just have that, and I think that's a wonderful thing if you have that sense. You just know what goes together and like what I said, some people have it and some people don't.

AS: Why is quilting important in your life or is it?

ME: It is, even though sometimes I'll go for months without touching a quilt. If people ask me what I do, I say, 'I'm a quilter.' And they say, 'Oh, I mean what kind of work do you do?' and I say 'Oh, well, I do this, I do that.' But in my head I'm a quilter.

AS: What does your license plate say?


AS: And what is your email address?

ME: [laughing.] Even when I'm not physically quilting, I'm quilting in my head. I've always got a quilt going in my head. So I think it's just who I am. It's the significant part of how I define who I am.

AS: So if you always have quilting going on in your head but you don't spend a lot of time actually doing it. Do you get frustrated by that?

ME: I do, and then I'll just kick myself because I realize I have spent two hours in a particular afternoon working on genealogy things on the computer and I'm thinking, well I could have spent an hour on genealogy and an hour on quilting. Why didn't I do that? So I think that's part of my problem with time management. I need to do a little better with that. But I find sometimes I do better with quilting if I get involved with another person; let's do a challenge, a mystery quilt, let's go away for the weekend. I tend to always, even if I'm going out in my travel trailer or I'm at a friend's house I always carry stuff with me to work on.

AS: You mentioned challenges. Have you done challenges with just one other person, say, as opposed to a group?

ME: I have, my sister and I have done a couple of mystery quilts, which was great fun because I would go to Maine to visit her and I'd know we were only going to be there a week and we could knock something out, that sort of thing. But yeah, I've done that. And I've done a lot of internet quilting. I belong to a group right now called Quilt Chicks, which is primarily a social kind of group. We talk about a lot of other things than just quilting. But there's also that element of 'What are you working on?' And we have something called Feather Your Nest Friday, which is your excuse for going out and buying something that you don't need but that you want just for your quilting. And then in the past I've belonged to groups on the internet that have actually done block exchanges or round robins or fabric exchanges. And of course I belong to the local Richmond Quilter's Guild, and I haven't been as good about going to those meetings of late, particularly in the winter, but I'm still part of the group. It's a part of who I am.

AS: I'm going to turn the tape over.

[tape turned over.]

AS: The last section of questions deals with the function and meanings of quilts in American life, an interesting aspect. In what ways do your quilts reflect your community or region?

ME: Oh, my. I don't know that they necessarily do that. I think that might have been more true back a few years in terms of people doing more regional quilting, like the Hawaiian appliqué, that sort of thing, but I think now we're spending so much time interacting with people all over the world through the internet and classes and we're much more mobile than we used to be. I go to classes in New England. I've been to quilt classes in North Carolina, or Pennsylvania. That type of thing, you tend to pick up things.

AS: When you go to Maine, say, do you see a difference in the fabrics offered sale there compared to what you find here?

ME: Not now, no. I think that might have been true at one time, but I don't see that now.

AS: [as ME considers the question.] I find that interesting because I made a trip recently to Santa Fe and I went to a quilt show there and their quilt fabrics and the quilts they made in the show have a very different flavor from those here.

ME: I bet they did. It's that southwest influence. You know, I tend to stay here on the east coast, so I don't see that big fluctuation, but I can understand what you're saying. Although I have a son who lives in Las Vegas, and the last few times I've been out there I've gone to a particular quilt shop I like that; it's quite large and has a really nice selection, but it tends to be the same fabrics that I see at the quilt shops here.

AS: We're getting more homogenized.

ME: I think so.

AS: Or we've having more [inaudible.]

ME: Well, that may be it. That may be what it is, but I buy a lot of my fabrics from companies online, so I'm buying things from Montana or New England or California.

AS: You do a lot of web surfing to find these, or do you see magazine advertisements?

ME: Both. For a while they were doing--well they still do do it. The quilt shop hop online, and that tends to send you to quilt shops all over the country. As a matter of fact, even though I'm living in Virginia my husband and I have a house in Maryland, and there is a quilt shop in a few miles of that house, and so I spend a lot of time at that quilt shop. But I just see the same fabrics no matter where I am, particularly up and down the east coast.

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

ME: I think quilts had a very significant role for women from the very beginning. I mean even during colonial times women's life was hard and you worked and there wasn't a lot of creative outlets for women. I think when women were doing their needlework whether it was quilting or embroidery or whatever, it was their opportunity to be creative. Certainly it was utilitarian, too. I know in my grandmother's situation she was making quilts to give all her children and grandchildren a piece of her, but they also served their purpose, too. When I was a child growing up there wasn't heat upstairs in the bedrooms. You had quilts on your beds because you had to stay warm. There are both sides of that, but I think women have taken that utilitarian aspect of it and made it into something that was special for them. My grandmother had a quilt on her bed that she made, but she had embroidered the names of all her grandchildren on, and she always used to say to me, 'Every night when I go to bed I tuck you right under my chin.' [both laugh.]

AS: What a nice story.

ME: It is. It's terrific.

AS: Do you remember what pattern it was?

ME: She did rail quilts. You know, where you just do straight lines and then you alternate the blocks, you turn them one one way, [gesturing to indicate the blocks turning.] then the other. Everything she did, that's what she did.

AS: So that's why it was easy to embroider the names.

ME: It was, and it was also easy to do on the treadle sewing machine. She had had an accident. She'd actually been backed over by a car, and both her legs had been broken and even despite that handicap she was able to run the treadle sewing machine. This was really a good thing for her to be able to do.

AS: How do you think quilts can be used?

ME: Certainly we're still using them on our beds for warmth. We use them as gifts. 'When this you see, remember me,' sort of thing. We certainly use them in decorating. I have quilts hanging throughout my house. So I mean it's not just bed covers any more, and certainly quilted clothing, and as a fashion statement. So all kinds of ways.

AS: Table covers?

ME: Yes, absolutely.

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

ME: Well certainly many museums have quilt collections and that's a wonderful thing. I think that it's important for families to try to preserve the quilts within their families. That's not always an easy thing to do I'm finding. For instance, the first quilt my grandmother gave me is in pretty sad shape now because I loved it to pieces, and the first quilt I made for my oldest son got really loved well, and a few years ago he – he'll be 30 this year and I made the quilt for him when he was eight, and two or three years ago he came to me and said, 'Mom, my quilt's falling apart. Can you fix it?' And I took it home and I looked at it and I thought, 'Oh, my.' All the quilting had popped, and the binding was all frayed and I'm going, 'You know, Chris, this thing is, you know it's 22 years old. I'll just make you another one.' And he goes, 'But, Mom. It's my quilt!' [both laugh in complete understanding.] So what do you do? So I rummage through my quilt fabric and discovered --You know I said, 'I love to make binding,' and when I make binding I make binding. I make yards and yards of binding. Well, I still had binding that I had made when I originally made that quilt,

AS: Wonderful!

ME: And I had just enough to take the binding off that quilt and to re-bind it, and then I re-quilted the areas where it had let go, and gave it a good bath and it's going strong again. I think sometimes it's difficult to try to preserve those quilts. I think we have to learn as much as we can about the older fabrics. There are techniques for stabilizing fabric that are weak. Storing thing with acid free paper and all those kinds of things, and when it gets out of our control then we need to get professional help to say what can we do.

AS: We need to educate our families about the value of our work.

ME: Right.

AS: They don't realize--

ME: [interrupting.] I guess I don't think about that because my family knows that.

AS: Well, the last question they have here on the sheet is what has happened to the quilts that you have made or those of friends and family?

ME: If my husband and I are traveling any distance you always wonder 'will everything go fine, anything going to happen to us in our travels,' but I always leave a list of things that need to be taken care of, and one of the things I always leave is a list of what happens to these quilts, where do they need to go, who gets what, how they need to be taken care of, and that sort of thing. I think one of those things we need to do, and I am not always faithful about it myself, is labeling quilts. When was it made, where it was made, who made it, what was the occasion. This particular quilt we're looking at today [gesturing toward the Attic Window quilt hanging on the rack.] I was very good about that. I've got a couple that I haven't been very good about, that need to be taken care of. I gave a quilt to a young man in Australia that I know doesn't have a label on it, and I think about it frequently and think I really need to get a label made and get it out there for him.

AS: Is it someone you knew?

ME: Yes. We have some friends in Australia, and when their youngest son was born I made him a quilt, and that was very early in my quilting career, and it's very lop-sided in terms of the pattern. The one I made for the second child and which I gave to him--I think it was 1998 probably that I gave him that quilt. It's been a while, it still doesn't have a label unfortunately, but I knew a little better what I was doing then and I did a Bow Tie quilt, but I did it all with each bow tie with different animal prints. And then the backing was a fabric that had the same "All Creatures Great and Small" theme. So I have two quilts that are living in Australia. One's labeled, one isn't. [long pause.] I've totally lost my train of thought. Where were we going?

AS: We were just talking about what has happened to the quilts you've made.

ME: Ah, yes. I don't own a lot of the quilts I've made. They've mostly been for giving. I went through a phase where I was making the flannel rag quilts, which I absolutely love making. And I had made one for my own bed and then my son decided he wanted one, but he wanted it king size, and I'm going, 'Oh, my gosh, that's huge.' So I made one for him, and then I made a smaller flannel quilt that was not a rag quilt for my grandson, and then a friend came over and saw that one on my bed and said, 'Oh, I love that. I would love to have one of those.' She said, 'Could you make it in pastels?' and I went, 'Yeah, I can do that.' And, she's a painter, so we did a little exchange. I got a couple of really nice watercolors for my guest room and she got a flannel pastel rag quilt. So, that worked.

AS: That's a good idea.

ME: Yes, that was fun to do. Most of my quilts end up some place else, although they, like this one [pointing to the hanging quilt.] have come back to me. Sometimes that happens, too.

AS: So, since you haven't kept many of your quilts, I've had people ask me, 'Don't you hate to get rid of your quilts, hate to let it go?' Do you have a proprietary feeling about giving them away?

ME: If I start with the intention that it's going to be going some place in particular, I'm OK with it. If I've started making something and I've kind of got an idea in my head where I want it in my house, and then someone says, 'Wow! I really like that. Would you consider letting that go?' I go, 'Oh, well, OK.' It's a little harder under those circumstances to let things go, but, no, I just feel like quilts are just part of the love that's out there in the world, and you just share them. People love quilts. They love to wrap up in them, to look at them, and I gave one to a young woman that I know a year ago. I made it for her birthday, and she was just so excited about it. She came to visit me recently and said, 'If I brought my quilt, would you show me what I need to do to take care of it?' I said, 'Oh, absolutely.' She brought it over, and we gave it a good bath and I showed her how she needed to take care of it, and she just loved it. That's the fun part of this.

AS: You knew she [inaudible.]

ME: Absolutely.

AS: Well, this seems like a good positive note to end on. We're ending the interview now. It's about quarter of three and it's still March the 8th.

Interview Keyword

Quiltmaking style
Female artists
Female quiltmakers
Quiltmaking classes
Hand quilting

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“Marjorie Elliott,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 24, 2024,