Alva Barrett




Alva Barrett


Alva Barrett is a quilter and member of the National Society of Daughters of the Americna Revolution, Tillicum chapter. She grew up in the South, and began quilting at age 16 because her entire family and community quilted. She is extremely knowledgable about quilt and textile history.




Melanie Grear


Alva Barrett


Joan Kennedy

Interview sponsor

Sandra Anne Frazier


Seattle, Washington


Karen Berndt


**This transcript was created by QSOS volunteers and was reviewed and, in some cases, edited by the interviewee. It may not exactly match the audio recording. For citations and interview quotations, please refer to the audio-recorded interview.** Joan Kennedy (JK): My name is Joan Kennedy and today's date is December 12, 2005. It is 10:15 a.m. I am conducting an interview with Alva Barrett in her home in Seattle [Washington.] for Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories project. We are doing this through the American Heritage Committee of Washington [State.] Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Alva is a quilter and a member of the Tillicum Chapter of the National Society of DAR. Alva, I have a question to ask you about your quilt that you are showing us today. Who made this?

Alva Barrett (AB): I made it myself [laughs.]. Cut the pieces, pieced the quilt, and quilted it. It took me three years. I started it in 1993 and finished it in 1996.

JK: Can you describe your work here that you have done?

AB: Well, first you cut the tiny pieces--I call it each leg and the difference in this and a lot of the Double Wedding Ring patterns. This has 17 pieces per leg. The modern ones the quilters use have seven or eight. The pieces are all of different sizes and the points go different ways. You put those together, then the centers, and if you look, the rings are going one into another. It is quite intricate work. I chose it to show that the difference in quilts you see other people have made. I don't know of anyone that uses my original pattern.

JK: How old do you think that pattern is?

AB: I really don't know. I would say probably Georgia is one of the original states, that's where I was born and raised, and would say the quilters in Georgia [laughing.] used it from the start if I would have to guess. I don't know.

JK: At what age were you when you started quilting?

AB: Sixteen years old. I graduated from high school in 1934 when I was sixteen years old. That was in the depths of the Depression and my parents were truck farmers in north Georgia and we didn't have any money so I could go on to college. So, I had to do something and I starting cutting--I picked this pattern and starting cutting the pieces. By the time I was nineteen years old, I'd made two Double Wedding Ring quilts.

JK: That's marvelous. Tell me, at that time, where were you getting your fabrics?

AB: Pardon

JK: Where were you getting your yardage?

AB: At that time in the Appalachians, most of the clothes were made at home. You saved every scrap that was cut when you cut out a dress or a shirt, or something. Also, at that time, you could order for 98 cents a bundle of scraps from Sears Roebuck that they bundled up from the textile mills. If you ran out of pieces that you'd saved from your homemade clothes, you somehow managed to get 98 cents to order a bundle from Sears Roebuck [laughs.].

JK: Alva, you are just a wealth of information [laughs.]. What special meaning does this quilt have for you?

AB: It is special to me because it is the fourth one I've made. The first two I moved from north Georgia to Washington State and I don't recall who I sold them to. But, the third one, my granddaughter in North Carolina has it because she wanted it and I gave it to her [laughs.]. I've got to have one for myself and one for my son and daughter when I am no longer here.

JK: So that is motivation to keep quilting. How do you use this quilt?

AB: Well, on my bed I use a solid white quilt for a spread and I have this quilt folded so the scalloped edges and the circles show when it is folded. And I put it across the foot of my bed and I have quilted pillows that I use at the top.

JK: I'm sure it is beautiful. One question I wanted to ask and that is, how did you select--why did you select this? You were mentioning your son and family was saying that this was one of their favorites and so why don't you tell me what you son did say about your quilt.

AB: [laughing.] I thought maybe that he would pick another one because I have some other beautiful quilts. Without hesitation he said, 'Oh, the Double Wedding Ring.' So I don't know that it is his favorite but he did say that it shows a lot of the intricate--he's a dentist and I guess he does intricate work and to him this is quite intricate to make that is one thing in quilting all the corners have to match. You don't let it come out uneven. That's the first thing a quilter will notice. At quilt shows, a quilt looks beautiful from a distance, but you get up close and here the corners don't match and I think, hmmm, that was done by a machine [laughs.].

JK: Well, thank you so much for this information.

[tape turned off for a short break.]

JK: Alva, would you tell me about your interest in quilting? At what age did you start quilting?

AB: I started at sixteen and my interest in quilting was because, in the part of the South where I grew up, quilting was one of the things that women did. And if you couldn't quilt, you might as well [laughing.] something was wrong with you unless you knew how to quilt, clean, and do all the things that pioneer women did. That was the reason I started quilting was because my mother had arthritis in her hands and she made utility quilts. One day my son said, 'I wish I'd thought to have grandma make me a quilt before her hands got so arthritic.' I was working at Sears eights hours a day, five days a week and I said, 'What's wrong with your mom?' And he said, 'Well, she can make you a quilt.' But he said, 'But yet you don't know how.' And I said, 'I do show quilts' [laughing.] He said, 'I didn't know that, Mother.' So while I was still working, I started piecing quilts and I made a quilt for my son and a quilt for my daughter. They were so enthused with the quilt that my son said, 'Mom, now that you made a quilt for each Pat and I, now what do you plan to do?' I said, 'Well, when I retire, I'll keep on quilting because that is a way of life with me.' [laughing.] And this is a funny thing because after I made a few quilts, he said, 'Mother, when you die, I'll give Pat $1,000 for each quilt that you have. I want them all.' So I told my granddaughter, Pat's daughter, that and she said, 'The 'h' he will.' [both laughing.]. 'Mother will have her part of the quilts. So that's what I've done, I kept on quilting.

JK: Oh, wonderful. Tell me, who did you learn to quilt from? Was it the neighbor women or your mother, or--

AB: Well [laughing.], there again, as I said, I imagine in the part of the country I came from, you were born a quilter because I can't remember anyone teaching me to quilt. Of course, my mother quilted when I was a child and she had a quilt in the frames like the frames that I have. I remember watching her quilt. So finally she let me—she made mostly utility quilts to keep us warm and she was not too particular about how long the stitches were. So she let me start quilting and I started quilting, then I decided that if you were going to do something, you should start to do it beautifully. And that is what I started to do.

JK: And you really have. This is just wonderful. This last question might sound redundant, but what is your first quilt memory?

AB: I would say my first quilt memory [laughing.] I guess as a child would being covered up with one. Because that's what we used to keep us warm in the winter was quilts because blankets were expensive and why buy blankets when the lady of the house could make quilts and save the money for something else. So I guess as a child, it was naturally for me--all the neighbors--that's all you would ever see on the beds to keep people warm was quilts. Quilting was something that you did.

JK: It was practical and a money saver. Are there other quilters among your family or friends? And please tell me about them if you--

AB: I have one cousin back in south North Carolina that quilts. She does machine quilting. And I have one cousin that does hand quilting but she makes utility quilts. People are eager to buy utility quilts. To me it is a quilt that I would call ugly. It seems that people that are looking for handmade things, it is beautiful to them [laughs.]. I often think they should really see something that is really beautiful [laughs.].

JK: Like this [AB laughs.]. How does quilting impact your family?

AB: I would say some of my friends have said I should designate quilts to be inherited. I have in my will left some quilts but I said, 'No, no.' My son would say, 'Why did you leave Pat this—I wanted that." Linda said, 'Alva, they will fight over them'. And I said, 'That will be their problem.' [both laughing.] So my children will divide them and my daughter laughingly asked me one time 'if my grandchildren would get any." I said, 'When you and Ernie divide them between yourself, if you want to give your son and daughter one, they get one, and if Ernie wants to give his son and daughter one, they'll get one.' She would probably decide not to and I said, 'Well, guess they won't get one.' [laughs.]

JK: Sounds like you have this well thought out. Tell me if you ever use quilting to get through a difficult time?

AB: Yes, yes, to get through a very difficult time. My first child, little Joel Clark was born October 27, 1939 and died December 12, 1939. In fact, actually 66 years ago today. Life suddenly had no interest for me at all. I prayed to die. Somehow I got a hold of some scraps and I pieced a quilt--some squares that awful winter. Otherwise, I don't think I could have made it through because I developed bleeding stomach ulcers and was very, very sick. Piecing quilts or cutting needs your full attention and I was able while I was piecing these squares to take my mind off what had happened to me. I brought those squares with me. I didn't make them into a quilt but I brought them with me to Washington State. And also, in 1998, I had to have open heart surgery. A lot of times after heart surgery, you get very very depressed and I did. In fact, it was Clark's quilt that I had in the frame but because of the incision—the scar—was so tender I couldn't quilt. I thought I have to do something with my hands. I cut the pieces and pieced a Tumbling Blocks Crib quilt for my great granddaughter and got through until I was able to come down and quilt on Clark's quilt. Those two times being able to do something with my hands and take my mind off--it may sound difficult to understand but at times like that, you have to have something that you can relieve the pressure maybe for just a few minutes or a few hours. At those times I could say quilting was very very helpful to me.

JK: Alva, thank you so much for sharing the personal moments that you were able to leave the hurt behind and focus on beauty; creating beauty. That's wonderful. Now, what do you find pleasing about quilting?

AB: Well, I say it pleases me. I myself think my quilts are beautiful and it pleases me to think that I am making something beautiful because I never learned to crochet, knit or anything like that. Everyone wants to be able to say I did something that turned out nice.

JK: And you have created such beauty. What aspects of quilting do you not enjoy?

AB: I enjoy all aspects of quilting. To me choosing the colors and choosing the colors to use in your quilting if you look at my quilts you will notice that blue is not used because for some reason the color blue and anything you use in your home depresses me. I've never had one thing but one bath towel that was blue in all the years that I have been keeping house. [laughing.] I had that blue bath towel because my husband was working part-time at Sears during the war [World War II.]. [laughing.] Working two jobs one a few hours at Sears and also in the Navy yard [Puget Sound Shipyard, Bremerton, WA.] and they got in some towels and gave each employee a chance to buy one. And the blue one was all that was left. [both laughing.] Blue is a favorite color of lot of people but I can't say why it depresses me.

JK: It is good you realize that. [laughs.]

[tape turned off for a short break.]

JK: Alva, what do you think makes a great quilt?

AB: To me a great quilt is great if the quilter enjoyed making it and the quilter thinks it is beautiful and likes it. I am not concerned, never have been, to much concerned about what anyone else thought about my quilts as long as they were pleasing to me and to my family because we were the ones who were going to enjoy them.

JK: Spoken as a wise woman there. What makes quilts artistically powerful?

AB: I really don't know because I have looked at some quilts that have been designed like art and to me it looks like modern art. I don't understand modern art and to me a lot of artistically designed quilts--they're straight edged--anything that can be sewn on the machine. To me, an intricate design that has to be done by hand to make the edges come out even, that's more powerful than something that looks like a modern picture.

JK: Thank you. What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or special collection?

AB: I can't say. I don't know why. I would use a comparison that I have often used about modern life because people are talking about terrorists. To me one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter [laughs.] and the same with quilts. One person's powerful quilt artistically powerful quilt means nothing to the next person so I really don't know. That would be for the person who chooses quilts for museums.

JK: Thanks for your honest opinion. What makes a great quilter?

AB: A great quilter has to like to quilt because if you don't enjoy quilting, then consider it a job that you've got to do. [laughs.] My mother used to say--she compared things she didn't like to do is mop the kitchen floor. If you don't enjoy quilting and love quilting, it is a job.

JK: That's right

AB: To me to love quilting and to enjoy it, it makes you a great quilter.

JK: That is a good answer. How do great quilters learn the art of quilting, especially how to design a pattern or choose fabrics and colors?

AB: I have used the quilting patterns that our ancestors used when I was growing up. I have only designed one quilt and that's the velvet quilt. There again, if I keep my eyesight, I want to make another velvet quilt so each one of my children will have a velvet quilt because they both want it. There again that's for them to decide [laughs.] if my eyesight doesn't hold up. I used the designs that our ancestors used and I don't care too much about trying to design. I know that is one aspect of a great quilter they say, being able to design but I am not one to design. To choose the fabrics, I call what I do choosing colors that go together peacefully. [laughs.] What I mean by peacefully is some colors that--two together seem to be battling, they don't go together. That's the way I choose colors. And green and yellow are two of my favorite colors and you will find that yellow is used in a lot in my quilts. I put them together because it has a sunny effect on me. [laughs.]

JK: Right, right. I like your term, peaceful colors--[laughing.] so they aren't battling. Now, I have a question that I am really curious about the answer. How do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting? And then, what about this long-arm quilting?

AB: Well, I do not care about machine quilting. I have always said if I want a machine made quilt, I'll go down to the department store and buy it. That's my opinion. I don't mean to discourage people that do machine quilting because of the ease and convenience and the speed of it. But for me, a quilt has to be hand made or it is not a real quilt. This long-arm quilting I had to ask someone to tell what that was.

JK: Tell me.

AB: [laughing.] It is an attachment to your machine that not knowing what it was I don't have any opinion on it [both laughing.].

JK: Thank you.

[tape turned off for short break.]

JK: Do you have a collection of quilting or sewing memorabilia?

AB: Well, I have a lot of patterns and I have several quilting books. Of course, my old frames that were used by the country people where I was born and raised. A lot of people can buy this quilt frame but it takes up a huge amount of room or space. But I have quilting frames that--really its two inches wide ten foot lot with the proper holes and that's all you need plus needles and thimbles and thread. That's the only things that you need. Just the patterns I've used throughout my life and what I used to quilt, that's all the things that I have.

JK: That's wonderful. Have you won awards for your beautiful quilts?

AB: Have I did what?

JK: Won any awards for your beautiful quilts?

AB: Not this quilt. I have a quilt upstairs, a Poinsettia, and I can't remember which year it was that I had it displayed at the Puyallup Fair. That year, a quilt from each Washington State Fair was chosen to compete--to find out what was the best quilt of all the fairs. My Poinsettia upstairs was chosen but I didn't win and I never knew what there did.

JK: Oh, but I am sure it is beautiful.

AB: But I have won blue ribbons for quilts that I have entered in the fair and several comments. The quilt that I use as a spread on my bed upstairs I had done at the fair one year and this quilt at the fair. And when I went to pick them up, the lady told me—someone--an artist downtown wanted to buy one of my quilts. I was sure it was this one. No, it was the white quilt I use on my bed, she wanted to buy it, and I told her I was not interested in selling. I have had several offers of people wanting to buy my quilts. I have at different churches and clubs I have shown my quilts. At downtown at the Tyee Yacht Club once I did--my neighbor across the street was a member and she wanted me to do a show to show the ladies and I took my quilts and showed them. That's the only thing I have ever done.

JK: Thank you. Why is quilting important to your life?

AB: It gives me something to do. I enjoy quilting and now that I am older, one worry I have, is that my sight will get where I won't be able to thread a needle. One time I told my ophthalmologist, and he said, 'Oh, Mrs. Barrett, don't worry. I think you'll be able to thread your needle if you were blind.' [both laughing.]

JK: That's wonderful. In what ways do your quilts reflect your community or your region?

AB: They reflect my region because of the patterns that I have chosen that were used during my childhood. And they are still used today. People back there who did the quilting don't do any of the modern designs. They swap patterns. They don't sit down and think I'll design a pattern.

JK: Oh, that is wonderful. What do you think about the importance of quilts in American life?

AB: There is a resurgence of interest in the quilts, because I feel--I think people have a desire to connect to our past because we are a young country. We don't have any capitols or anything like that. All we have is the tools, the quilts, and the things that our ancestors used. A few of the beautiful homes that a few people were able to acquire enough wealth to build a home, it is something similar to the ones in the county they came from. So, I think that is why there is an interest in quilting. The region I came from—the county has the smallest TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority.] dam, Lake Chatuge [in Georgia.] and it has become a place full of wealthy retirees. They scour the countryside for old tools, quilts. I have this cousin that I said makes utility quilts. They eagerly buy hers and they think they are beautiful but her brother visited me one time and saw my quilts. He said [AB laughing.], 'Jeez, I wish Hershey--that was his sister that does the quilts--I wish she could see [AB laughs.] your quilts.'

JK: Oh yeah. They are--

AB: [laughing.] Now I sound like I am bragging on my quilts, but I am really not.

JK: No, you aren't.

AB: Because in my youth, there were two categories of quilting: utility and show. Utility was to keep the beds warm and Show was to use for spreads or hang over a rack like I have upstairs or in the hall here—wall hangings. Most quilts now are made for show because blankets are cheap and inexpensive. People use those to keep warm.

JK: You don't need masterpieces in painting when you have your work. It is just beautiful. In what ways do you think quilts have a special meaning for women's history in America?

AB: The pioneers, sometimes people wonder how they had time to quilt, but that was just another job they had to do along with cleaning, cooking, and child bearing. If you had family they had to have something to cover them up when they slept at night so quilting was very important. I think a lot of our forefathers/ancestors--a lot of quilts were utility quilts but occasionally they did feel a need to create something beautiful which they did.

JK: Thank you. How do you think quilts can be used?

AB: I think all the quilts now are all the Show variety and they can be used by people that like folk art. That is what I call my quilting is folk art because anything that is made by a person, usually untrained. A lot of it is shown in museums and all. In fact, at the Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg [laughs.] is an example of that. Like I say, we are a young country and we have a desire to have a history.

JK: I think you are right, Alva. How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future?

AB: I think families will preserve the quilts. I often wonder what happened to my grandmother's and my aunt's quilts. I don't know because I moved from/to Washington State from Georgia in 1941. I would like to add that in 1998, I mentioned the quilt that I pieced the winter that my baby died; I was never able to make a quilt of it. I tried it a few times but it was too hard. But in 1998, I suddenly I felt I had to finish Clark's quilt. And it was Clark's quilt that I had in the frame when I had my heart surgery. I've never given it a name, it is just called Clark's quilt. My children--I've asked them to--it's not my most beautiful quilt, but I've asked them to preserve that quilt. They have assured me and said, 'Don't worry, Mother. We'll preserve all your quilts.' I think most quilters' families will preserve them, I hope so at least.

JK: Oh, I am sure yours will. I think that Clark's quilt is just the appropriate name too. What has happened to the quilts that you have made or those of friends and family?

AB: In my will, the Poinsettia upstairs--my oldest granddaughter insisted that she get the Double Wedding Ring that I had. My Sara, my son's daughter said, 'Grandma, give it to Lisa because she said, all your quilts are beautiful. I'll be happy with any quilt that you leave me.' So in my will I told her Sara gets the Poinsettia. Also, my son's ex-wife--she is still my daughter-in-law--her favorite quilt is the Hollyhock Wreath and she gets that quilt. And the other quilts, like I say, are each grandson gets a quilt and my son and daughter get the others. Since I started quilting, I have made 14 quilts.

JK: Well, thank you so much, Alva. This has really been a joy and a personal history lesson. You know it really has been wonderful for me being allowed to interview you today as part of our Quilters' S.O.S. which is Save Our Stories project. Our interview was concluded at 11:00 o'clock [a.m.] on December 12, 2005. And again, Alva, thank you so much. I learned a great deal and I know everyone else will too.

AB: It has been a pleasure [laughs.].


“Alva Barrett,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 19, 2024,