Viola Williams Canady




Viola Williams Canady




Viola Williams Canady


Evelyn Salinger

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Washington, D.C.

Interview indexer

Anne Lafferty


Evelyn Salinger


Evelyn Salinger (ES): We are continuing Viola Canady's interview two years later. This is July 6, 2004 and we are at the Calvary Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. We had such a good interview at my practice interview, the first part, and I wanted to finish the interview with Viola and get as much as we can from her. So, hi Viola, how are you today?

Viola Canady (VC): Oh, hi Evelyn.

ES: Thanks so much for agreeing to do this again.

VC: Yes.

ES: I think we will just take on from where we left off. We were talking about your strip piecing and how you liked to do that and the stained glass technique. Could you tell us a little bit more other favorite techniques or favorite things you like to do in quilting?

VC: I like to do Trapunto. I like to do Cathedral Windows. [technical interruption.] And I like all kinds of scrap quilts. All, 'cause I can remember from my childhood of sewing scraps together. That was a quilt to me with many colors. 'Cause we had just scrap bags with little pieces and everything. And that's what they would always give me to sew. I had a shoe box and they would give me all the little pieces. My mother had showed me how to cut out a piece of paper and sew the scraps on them and make something, pull the paper off the back and then sew it together and sash it and all different kinds of things. So, that's what I like as a quilt is having many colors. A quilt with two colors isn't my thing. My thing is lots of color.

ES: Oh, yes. Now do you make mostly large quilts or wall hangings?

VC: Well, I used to make large quilts but then in the later years I made wall hangings. I made so many big quilts--well, I made quilt tops, lot of them, and just sold the tops like they were.

ES: You sold them.

VC: Yeah. Oh, I had to make money. And so I sold them. And then when I got tired of doing that, and when I started teaching quilting, I would choose what I wanted to—wall hanging, or--. Then somebody asked me after that first Cathedral Window that I made and somebody bought for three thousand dollars. They said, 'Why don't you make something that the average person can afford?' You know. And I started making little wall hangings and pieces.

ES: Would you describe the subject of a lot of your wall hangings? As I remember a lot of them were African women.

VC: Yeah. Uh-hum. I have lots of women. I have angels. And men. Just anything that would come up in my mind. I'd be looking at a book or something, and see something. 'I want to try this.' Then I would try it. And come out with something nice. At first, I would start on something and didn't bit more know what I was making than a chicken, but I thought it would do and it would turn out pretty, turn into something. 'Cause patterns, I didn't do too many things by patterns. 'Cause I hate to read. I never did like to read. I like to do my things by looking at pictures.

ES: Uh-hum.

VC: You would think I couldn't read. I could. Believe me, I could read, I was a very good reader at one time. But I never liked to read for anything on my job, anything that I did. I would look at it for a little bit, and then I would go and do it. I'd rather to just do it then read patterns. When I was making people's dresses and things, I did not want to read those patterns.

ES: That shows you have a very creative mind. You create your own--

VC: Yeah, 'cause I could cut out a pattern. I could design. Well, I did take designing. I was very good with dresses, and things. People used to go down to Garfinkles and those places, those rich women would bring the dresses to me for the weekend and to copy this dress. Then they'd take it back and say that their husband didn't like it.

ES: Oh, oh.

VC: Yeah, I did a lot of that of that stuff. 'Cause I could look at it. Uh-hum.

ES: Now, you also have done some clothing, besides. Piecework, clothing, not only dress design.

VC: Oh, yes. 'Cause with the army, I think I did the first skirts for the army band when President Kennedy's funeral. They didn't have skirts. I don't know whether I did the skirts first or the pants 'cause one of them the girls did not have. And then at that time they ordered and see, it take them months to get something done. And when they wanted something special, I had to do it. It was two girls I had to make pants for when President Kennedy's funeral. It was so cold and those girls out there did not have--and some of them could wear the boy pants, but there was two little girls that were real hippy and nobody had any pants to fit. And I had to do these pants for them.

ES: You had to do them. How many days' warning?

VC: 'Cause we stayed out all night long out to Fort Meyer. We was out there sewing. In fact, we didn't even come home but one time for the whole weekend. We had to do that funeral. And it was so cold. We had to cover the instruments. We had to put black fabric, we had to cover the drums and all those different things. Oh, yeah. And so those kind of things, I was real good at that because I used to do slip covers and draperies, to cover furniture. And everything like that. And I was real good at that and I know this supervisor who had a group. And then they gave me the other group. So she got all the best people in the group that could do fast. 'This is going to be my group and the other group Miss Canady can have.' And my group was the ones that could not sew.

ES: Oh.

VC: So she's gonna get finished. I got my group and they listened to me. And I could cut. She couldn't. I just cut that stuff, covered that drum, covered that thing and everything. And we stayed there, and when we left there something like four o'clock in the morning. They had finished all ours. And theirs was up there. Then the boss would say, 'Well, how we going to get the rest of this?' I told him, 'I have no idea,' 'cause see, she had taken all the good people. But the thing about it, she was gonna have to do the cutting. And she could not cut, and I could cut that stuff. And so we left them there. And a whole lot of the stuff, they could not even use, but all of my stuff was. [inaudible.]

ES: That was wonderful.

VC: Oh, yeah.

ES: Was the funeral going to be that very same day when you left?

VC: I think it was the next day 'cause I think we had. I can't remember unless I read some of my papers, how many. 'Cause we went there--I think he got killed on a Friday.

ES: Yes, that's correct.

VC: We went back in there on Saturday, on Sunday. I know we were there all day on Sunday because I was sitting when they shot Oswald. I was looking right at the television. Then we were there two or three days until the funeral. It was a lot of preparation, a lot of things to be done. And at Fort Meyer, that's where everything was done, you know, for the funeral. That's how I got one of the tassels from President Kennedy's caisson. Then when I was finished, I had to go over when the caisson was covered. And help them cover it. But then, when it came back, over two or three months, or something later, when I can't remember who died, then it came off that stuff. And I was there to help take it off and I have a tassel from President Kennedy's caisson.

ES: Ah. Some museum will like that some day.

VC: Oh, yeah. I did a lot of work for the army when I was working at Fort Meyer. I did lots of things. Every time they wanted something made, they would come. I did a flag for General Westmoreland, when they wanted flag made for a savings bond drive in Vietnam. The Philadelphia place could not make it in the length of time that they had, so, 'Miss Canady can do it. I bet she can do it.' And they sent the woman. And I said, 'Get me the material and everything.' So they got material from Philadelphia--I took that thing home and over the night and the next day I stayed home. I really did not have to stay home, but I did because I had done the thing. I just stayed home the next day, 'cause I had the next day off. I brought that flag in there.

ES: That flag was used for what?

VC: For savings bond drive, something in Vietnam. I got award for it. I think I got a financial award and a certificate from General Westmoreland. There's a write-up in the paper.

ES: That's very nice.

VC: So, I did, I think, more things when I was working in the service that I was honored for, 'cause I was well-known. Otherwise I would ha' never had army color guard come to my affair. 'Cause fifteen pieces of the army band had planned to come, but it happened the same day as Desert Shield. They had planned that at the [inaudible.] So, then they said, 'Well, you can't get'—'cause I could just get the army band. Most everybody I know. They didn't do that. But they didn't tell me they was gonna send the color guard. And so when we walked in down there the next morning, my daughter said, 'Oh, Momma, there's your boys.' I said, 'They wasn't gonna send the army band.' They didn't. They sent the color guard. And they were down there. They performed and everything at the Sumner when the [wall.] hanging was unveiled. [at the first African American school in DC, now administrative offices and museum space.] 'Cause we had a hundred and fifty people on Sunday and a hundred and fifty on Monday.

ES: Tell us more about the Sumner School wall hanging that you had this honor guard come to.

VC: No, it was not a color guard; it was the United States Color Guard from Fort Meyer, Virginia. 'Cause I had received from the Department of the Army, I have received a medal that they had never given a civilian. I'd get a lot of work when I was out there. The generals and everything. Everything they asked me to make from the funny looking hats that you see that the guards wore, I would fix them anything. All those old ruffled shirts. Anything that they wanted, I fixed that stuff for them. And see, I was well known. They gave me a medal that they had never given a civilian. It's in that I have in the little newspaper that I have somewhere here. That's why they were coming to honor me at the Sumner, 'cause I was out of the Army. I had retired and this was way after that. But after they retired, they would bring their stuff out there to my house to get their ribbons and different things sewed. I did all that kind of stuff.

ES: They still come to you, even after you retired?

VC: Oh, yeah. And come to me. But the Sumner thing, I was asked, and I don't know how I got asked to do the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival on the Mall. I was asked to do that. It must have been around 1985. [she thinks over the dates.] It had to be somebody from North Carolina. It had to be somebody that was taught quilting, they was featuring quilts that was taught by their grandparents and their mother. And so, I fitted that good. Then, I did them ten days. They had somebody to help me every day, somebody was their volunteer. And then some of our members [Daughters of Dorcas.] would volunteer there to help me. And so I never seen--the lady says about a million people come by to see your work. I thought there was no way, and she said, 'You are going to have to talk to the press from all over the world.' You know, the press be there. A half an hour every day we would have to go over and sit on that little porch and talk to the press.

ES: The porch of where?

VC: The Smithsonian. There was a little house there and you go and you talk to the press. And different ones would--then I could not eat my food, somebody was always there while I'm eating my food.

ES: This would be in one of those exhibition tents? Did they have tents on the Mall then?

VC: Uh-hum. You see at my tent I would leave, but I got to Sumner--one of the men was down there with his grandchildren, at the Smithsonian. And I couldn't talk to him because the Russian press was right around me, waiting for me to go to lunch. They talked and got every note they could while they were there. Then they followed me to lunch. So this man stayed out there with his grandchildren. When I came back, he had left a note, 'cause they stayed. When I got back from my lunch, he had given the girl a note for me to call him. So, I waited two or three days or something. And then he asked me if I would like to let them have a show at the Sumner of all my work. And so I talked to him about it, and I told him, I said, 'I don't have.''We want it all, we want it all,' they said. But I only had the little room on the first floor as you go in, I had that full, and a few things in the hall. That's all I had at that time. I took that, and we had a show. I think only about three months. And I'm making stuff. Every time I go in, somebody want another--'Could you make me the girl with the hair.' And I could do fast then. And Mr.Walker was saying, 'You can make one and you can sell it.' And I said, 'Don't I have to pay?' 'No, you don't have to pay.' And so the people was just leaving signs, pieces of paper to do this. And I did more work. I was doing night and day, there, when I was doing those things. So I did a lot of work, but I sold it, you know.


ES: We were just at the point that you had the Sumner School exhibit. And I was wanting to know how you came about doing that big wall hanging for the Sumner School.

VC: After I had that show there, I think this was the first time they had--you know it was just remodeled, just turned into a museum and they hadn't had any shows like that. That was the first quilting or anything like that that they had. And Mr. Hurlbut just started us--and he just thought for some reason, they thought that I could do anything. And one day, and he was saying, there was a picture on the wall, and he said, 'I bet you could do a picture of the building.' I wasn't even thinking. I don't know why I always had a thing about when somebody asked me to do something, I could do it. [background noise.] And so when he asked me, I said, 'Yeah, I could do one.' He said, 'You really could?' And I said, 'Yeah.' And he says, 'What do you get?' And I said, 'You don't get anything.' And then they wanted to know how much I charged. I got to think about this, I don't know about this. Because I wanted it to be a part of the historical thing. I didn't charge them much. 'Cause I really didn't charge them what I really should have charged. They got the money together and told me to buy whatever I wanted. I bought more fabric that didn't match. Oh my Lord! More fabric that didn't match. And then, when I got the fabric, I got started on it and up to Sumner I don't know how many times, I didn't go up. 'Cause a different time of day the building changed color. I'd go up there with this fabric, 'This don't look like that.' And whether you know it or not, there is a lot of different shades of fabric up in that roof. Lots of different shades.

ES: In the roof, did you say?

VC: In the roof of that building. Yeah. Because they said that is really the part of the Sumner that is well-known. You can see it from way away. And those different colors--so okay, I started. 'How long's gonna take you?' I said, 'A year,' I just said, 'fore coming out of my mouth. 'Cause I knew it wasn't going to take me no year, but I'm not going to get myself tied down. So then I got started on it, I started on it, and so many times I'd want to throw this thing out the door. And I'd just have to stop and pray, 'Lord, what did I get myself into?' I just prayed. But then I would do some and maybe go to sleep, and the next morning I'd get up and put it away for a couple of days. You see it was so huge. I had it in six pieces that I had to make it in. I couldn't work on it all together, I had the six pieces-- I really altogether the centerpiece was seven. And then, when I got this thing together, Evelyn, that shows you should always have extra fabric on the stuff when you have something, because I just had, you know, big places like four-inch margins around the thing. 'Cause had it not, when I got finished with this thing, and got ready to put the pieces together, the centerpiece in one place down to the bottom, there was like this [indicates space.] where it wasn't going to--

ES: A couple of inches--

VC: Yeah. A big couple of inches there. And I said, 'Oh my God, have I gotta do'-- And I had all this braid on there, you know, hours and all these little stitches—I didn't know what I was going to do. So then I thought about that and so now, I can move this thing over and I still had about a whole inch left on each side. I moved it over so the center would meet. [puzzling explanation follows.] And I had to get that center fitted on that thing. This thing is 90 by 100 [inches.]. And so I had a lot of fabric to deal with there, but thank God I had enough by using the margin that I could get it straight without adding a piece, 'cause I could not add a piece, it would mean to do the whole center thing all over again. But thank God it all came. And I got it finished. Nobody never saw it or asked to see it while I was working on it. I'd go up there. They'd take me on top of the roof. I'd sit up there sometimes an hour and sketch and do, and try to get those colors and things. And when I took it back, when I told him I was finished and I took it, and he says, 'I didn't ask you to paint this.'

ES: Painted.

VC: He was like I am, he couldn't see like I'm getting so now I don't see very good. I said, 'It's not paint.' He had to get down on the floor and look and he said he thought it was the most beautiful thing. And there was two little wrinkle places beside the braid that I had told the peoples that framed it. You know the peoples who framed that thing was the peoples who frame for the White House.

ES: Ahh, nice.

VC: And so I told them to let me know, 'cause they would call me down and ask me questions during they were framing it and fixing it 'cause they're supposing to preserve for a hundred years. So when they went down one time, they saw this little wrinkle, to see did I want to get it out? 'Cause all I had to do was to take my iron, dampen it, and press it out. So I went down and I told them I would come back and get it out. So Mr. Hurlbut, bless his heart, he saw it and he said, 'Oh, no. I don't want that taken out.' And I said, 'Why? All I got to do is get a'--he said, 'No.' He said, 'Only God make perfect things.' And he said, 'If we take that out, it'll be perfect and I don't want it taken out.' He wouldn't let me take it out. So that's why. And I always think about it. That was such a beautiful thought, to say that. Yeah.

ES: Uh-hmm.

VC: And so that's why it's hanging up there with the little wrinkles, which most people-- 'Cause every time I tell somebody, 'I didn't see no wrinkle.' I said, 'Well.' I knew it was there and I had showed it to them and they were going to get me the peoples who was framing it, they were going to come down and let me take it out, but Mr. Hurlbut said, 'No, we don't want that taken out 'cause only God make perfect things and if we take it out it would be perfect.' And so, everybody was just so happy about that. It was 150 peoples on Sunday and 150 on Monday 'cause there were 300 people. But Monday was all governmental officials, and I could only have 50 peoples on Monday. But Sunday, I was able to invite all the peoples there.

ES: All your friends.

VC: Yeah. My doctor, my lawyer, my everybody I could invite. They told me to send them names, and I did. So it was really a big affair.

ES: And so this was the dedication that you're mentioning. What year was that?

[discussion. we'll check on the date.][1990.]

Also, I remember that it was in the Quilters' Newsletter Magazine. I saw it in there.

VC: Yeah.

ES: It's before I moved here.

VC: Oh, yeah. It is in the Quilters' Newsletter [Magazine.] but I can't remember what year.

ES: Do you have other commissioned works that you did?

VC: Oh, yeah. They were for just people, just ordinary person, not like the School. Well, I did, you know I was supposed to do the Franklin School, the same way I did that one, but Mr. Hurlbut got real sick and I had a real two and a half years of asthma the worst I'd had. So he got sick and I just told him that I had just done bought the fabric and all the stuff and I asked him to just let that go 'cause they didn't have the money. They was raising the money and they still don't use that Franklin building.

ES: Will you explain the Sumner School had an historical meaning and also the Franklin School?

[background noise.]

VC: Getting to the beginning of it [Sumner.], it was a school that they had built. Franklin and Sumner was built about the same time. And they asked this man [Adolf Cluss.] to build a school for the colored people in the District of Columbia. This was the first building for blacks in the District of Columbia--school, okay. And they wanted the Franklin building. That was for the white people, okay. So the man build the school, they evidently told him to, you know, throw something together for the Sumner. Now I heard that, 'cause this was told to me, this is not in the book that I have, but I know the story. They would not pay the man for building the Sumner. So, okay. And the man, I think about two years or something after then, he, the architect, was in Vienna, Austria. And they were looking at pictures or something. And that picture won an award. And he said, 'Oh, not that one, because I didn't even get paid for that one.' And they asked him, 'Why?' He said, because the men-- They said he built it too good. He didn't do like they told him. And they wouldn't pay him. So this was two years or something later. And he was in Vienna, Austria. And then, they said, 'This school won the award' or whatever he did. And so the United States, he said, they really got embarrassed about that. And they paid the man after then. They paid the man for doing that.

ES: Oh.

VC: And so that's why they wanted to keep this building because it was the first school and turn it into a museum. Mr. Hurlbut told me that. He told me that part. He said that's not in the book. They're not going to put that part in the book. But I know in the book 'cause they gave me a book of a lot of stuff about Sumner.

ES: Okay.

VC: They asked me to make it and I made it. [her thoughts interrupted.] I made that hanging and had it framed. They told me to go down and pick out a frame after they had it stretched. They had it about a week on a stretcher thing, all stretched out there. And they would call me, 'Come look at it today.' See, I'd go look at it and everything, to see that they didn't stretch it too much. How nice it came out. You see now how old it is.

ES: It's very beautiful. You should have a picture of that on your biography.

VC: I have some pictures. I have lots of pictures. But it might be bigger than the machine to put--'cause my daughter is going to--all the ones that she have blowed up from a computer is just like it only you can't see the frame. Because I got to cut one out of the book that's got the frame on it and put the thing--because I say it wouldn't be nice to show this picture without the frame—the frame is 5000 dollars. That frame cost itself. And so I'm going to get one of the magazines and cut the picture out of the magazine that the frame was around and give you one of those.

[the photo of Mrs. Canady's Sumner School wall hanging was taken September, 2004, and is included in this interview.]

ES: All right. Now, I am going to ask you a few other things in the few minutes we have left. Do you have a lot of promising members of your Daughters of Dorcas and some sons? [laughs.] Can you talk about some of the people who have passed through this group in the last 25 years that you've been here?

VC: We've sure had, some of them have done so well, you wouldn't believe how many came in just beginners. Virginia Quinn, I met her the week that we came here. And she was, I think, working on her first piece. She had taken a class somewhere out there and they told her about us and I told her to meet us here because we had planned to move here. And I told her to meet me here the next Tuesday and that's how I met--she came here when we moved here. [to the church.] And you know how she can quilt. A beginner that came from nowhere. And we've had so many and really when we met Raymond Dobard [Professor of Art History, Howard University.], he had made his first quilt. But he didn't know anything much about what he had read 'cause he's a historian and he took advantage of that. But he came and just took off and wrote a book. He was another person who just quilted and did a lot.

ES: Some of the first members that you had, I think you said, most of them have passed away. All the first ones have passed away.

VC: Yeah. Now there's one, the one member that's living now is on the charter. She is one of the six. She has cancer. Roy [Mitchell, another DoD son.] and I went to see her last week. [explanation why they went to her.] Now she has the quilt that she made when she first joined, and she has the six members plus two others, is eight blocks. That everybody made a block. And I had all of us exchange one but I don't known where mine was, thrown away, I thought sure I had them. I don't know where mine is, but she have those six members that's on the charter that's passed on, gave her a block, and she had never finished quilting it, so I told her to finish it 'cause Roy said he'd like to put it in the book. [that he is writing.]

ES: Would you tell me her name again?

VC: Isabelle Clifford. And she is still living.

ES: But soon after, you had others including Virginia, as you said. Any others that stand out in your mind?

VC: I know that she and Selma Lee, Vivian Hoban, they quilted. Gertrude [Braan.] did, but she did clothing. But I do remember that Vivian and Selma Lee--

ES: Was Joyce--?

VC: Yeah. Joyce Nixon is another one. [then a short discussion of another person.]

ES: I would like to ask you, how has your family been affected by your interest in quilts? Any way in particular? Have they been supportive?

VC: Oh, yeah. They are very supportive. 'Cause I did more. I loved this. And I got well. I was sick, that's why I came out of the government. And from the time I came out of the government, I wasn't sick any more, not real, real sick as I was. And so they were very supportive, and very happy [inaudible.] and did what I wanted to do. And even my husband, he babysit, that's all he could do. I don't care what happens if I was there or not, he was the babysitter. He loved sports.

ES: These were grandchildren.

VC: Yeah. So I could go anywhere I want. And I was going almost every day somewhere to teach a class or do something. I was teaching classes or going somewhere.

ES: Where did you teach classes, mostly?

VC: All the chapters, different chapters. NQA. I think the first one I went to was Bowie. [Maryland.] Then I taught the big one at the 3 days of University of Maryland, the campus at Columbia, up there. I did that one. And then, Pennsylvania. I'd drive anywhere. They'd get up these chapters. And I would sit up all night long and cut kits, 'cause see, that's the way I had to do my thing. I had to have a kit. And then I'd have to have some to sell to make money. And then I had to have patterns. I'd have the kit and then I'd have the patterns, you could buy the pattern and you could buy the kit. And then I would go teach the class. And see, you got very little for teaching the class. 'Special for the NQA, 'cause they paid us all, for a day you would get a hundred and some dollars. But you made up your money from the--uh-hum.

ES: You also, I think, taught at the Anacostia Museum? How many years you taught--

VC: Oh yeah. The Windrich. I used to go, I think for six weeks, would go every weekend to their Windrich Gallery, 'cause every Sunday, peoples would come and we would be there teaching [inaudible.] Nine Patch and other things, cut out, teaching our group and have our workshop. And peoples would just come in and we met lots of people. And a lot of our members, that's where we met 'em first.

ES: You met first at some of these workshops.

VC: Yeah. 'Cause Gertrude [Braan.], as long as I had been teaching, she was the first black member that I ever had.

ES: My heavens.

VC: Yeah. 'Cause when I go to these places teaching there was no black peoples there. No.

ES: Why would you suppose that?

VC: Because they didn't—I told you it was a year that Etta Portlock and myself around begging peoples and nobody would think this. 'Oh, I slept under those things in South Carolina or some place, that's why I don't want no quilt.' And they wouldn't. And nobody would join and then after I sold that first Cathedral Windows that I made, Mr. Hurlbut just borrowed it, asked me could he borrow it to hang at the Sumner Christmastime. [inaudible.] And so he says, 'How much is it worth?' I don't know I why thinking about--

[tape side A ends.]

ES: Just a couple more questions I wanted to ask you. When you look at quilts made by other people, what do consider is a great quilt? What makes a quilt great?

VC: Well, now when I, from looking at one, the first thing I'm looking at, is it straight? [laughs.] I'm really--then I watch the quilting and their piecing. But what make a great quilt to me, it have to be a quilt of many colors. I think that's what 'quilt' mean, pieces of many colors, to me.

ES: Very good.

VC: But I watch the quilting and I watch the way it was quilted, and pieced, and whether it's straight or not. 'Cause that's one thing that bothers me is to see a quilt hanging-- 'Cause I've done clothing, I've done houses, you know bedspreads and draperies, everything meant a lot to me.

ES: Very good.

VC: That means a lot to me, how things hang. 'Cause that's why when I used to do the Tomb guards, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, they wrote in the paper one time, they wanted to know why did the military district of Washington have their soldiers' clothes fitted better than any all around. You can go over the United States but no clothes fit like the clothes in the military district of Washington. Well, this is a ceremony thing. They do lots of funerals. And their clothes, especially those Tomb guards, their clothes have to fit so nice. And that braid have to be so straight. Even those made, the average person don't even know that the inches and quarter inches and things and all this stuff. A man, especially, I look at a man's clothes and see I know what his arms, his dimensions is supposed to be. It is very important. I'm always picking men to pieces. [laughter.] I don't bother with women, too much. But men, I know how their clothes and where things are supposed to fit on the heel, and everything. And so if you have ever been out there and have watched those Tomb guards, you can see how things are. And see, I am one of those kind of people that things have to be right.

ES: Good.

VC: Yeah, but I don't do it all the time, I'm telling ya.

ES: I remember you made some very beautiful jackets. Lovely pieces and quilting.

VC: Uh-hum.

ES: Do you like to do clothing? I mean patchwork clothing.

VC: Yeah.

ES: You have some beautiful ones. Prairie points around the bottom—and all sorts of things.

VC: Yeah. Uh-hum. I enjoy doing that kind of thing. But as I was saying, it's got to be right 'cause--I've seen women with dresses, I'm glad pants came in style 'cause I've seen women with dresses that—uh-hum.

ES: With the hem going up and down.

VC: Yeah, Uh-huh. But I'm not as critical, because I worked for men when I was fitting at Fort Meyer in the Army Band and all those things. For the average person, I learned all those things, where everything, every little thing, even a quarter of an inch. And I can just look. [She chuckles.] 'Cause my daughter, not too long ago, she was looking on television. She said, 'I bet you are looking to see where--looking at this man, some colonel.' And so when I says, 'I sure am 'cause that's a full bird colonel and his bird [eagle.] isn't straight.' You know they have to be very, very careful, see. 'Cause I had a book, and I knew where every quarter of an inch, everything of that army stuff. And I'm always watching that kind of stuff.

ES: I have one more question: I was going to ask you the place of quilting in the African American woman's life.

VC: I don't know what you mean.

ES: Is it historically, what was the place of quilting in the African American woman's life?

It was a matter of necessity as you said.

VC: Oh, yeah. I understand.

ES: But I want to know what else, what did women do?

VC: Like my family, it was a necessity. We had to quilt to keep warm. There were no money to buy a blanket, or anything. So that's why we had what we called the utility quilts. Where everything you washed it and folded it in a bag and it ended up in a quilt one way or another.

ES: Right.

VC: Over and over. They would. And then sometime when the quilt would get so--you washed the quilt and put in between another one. They went 'round and 'round like that. But we had quilts like I said, my mother was a seamstress. And she sewed for people. She had scraps and fabric. And then she pieced for peoples and they would give her scraps that was left over. Me, by the time my mother was gone, they would give me, and I don't know why I thought it was so much, and they were giving me nothing because--'Oh, Viola,'-- they would bring the box of quilt [fabric.], 'Make me these two and you can have what's left.' Well, now I'm gonna make her two quilt tops out of this. And what's left is nothing but the little things you put on paper. But I was so happy to get that 'cause it has so many pretty colors and things. 'Cause we didn't have that many pretty colors.

ES: So African American women mainly were sewing for other people, the quilt tops but they didn't have them for themselves. Except the leftovers.

VC: Well now, yeah, that's the thing about it. 'Cause we didn't have money to buy. But I remember that one lady that my mother sewed for, way back when I was a little girl, I remember just as good as it was yesterday, she bought my mother a whole box of--I don't know, I think they got this stuff out of Mississippi, or somewhere. But she gave, she bought her a box, and she said, 'Lila, you can have this for yourself.' And that's one time we got a whole box of this stuff. Uh-hum. And that's where we had the new quilts, what you only use when company came.

ES: I think I'd better close now. Thank you so much for all this time today, more than we expected, actually. It has been great.

VC: Yeah. Well. I'm sure not the person that you want to interview because I'm not--I like to run my mouth. [laughs.]

ES: You are a great storyteller. That's why I love to hear you talk. Very good. Thank you.


“Viola Williams Canady,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 16, 2024,