HG: How did you learn to sew?
EW: Mother was always sewing and so we tried to sew. I was about four years old when I started making dolly clothes. The first time it didn’t look, but I improved in a week’s time. Mother made some crocheted rugs. Dad whittled a hook out of wood. We would sew carpet strips together and mothers crocheted them into rugs. I did some hand piecing before I started school. [Soon after she made her first quilt, a neighbor moved in who was sponsored about twelve Ukrainian immigrants. Mrs. Witmer’s mother asked her if she would donate the quilt to this family because she could always make another one. She decided to donate the quilt.] My grandmother, my father’s mother, made each of her twenty-seven grandchildren quilts from start to finish. [The children received a quilt by choosing a number that corresponded to a quilt.] Quilting has been in the family.
HG: What is your favorite part of making quilts?
EW: Picking the colors. On the best quilts one color does not stand out and say ‘Wee!’ I only went to school for eight years. I always got an A in art but never in arithmetic and spelling.
HG: But you must use math to do the pieced quilts, don’t you?
EW: Yes, but I use a calculator. We didn’t have calculators back then. I wasn’t too bad in math. I only got one B in art. That was in the first semester in a new school. All we had to do was color pictures. The teacher said she never have farm children an A before but if she didn’t she’d have to give someone else an F. We had a large classroom with a stove in the back. We threw our potatoes on the stove and took them out at lunch. That was our hot lunch.
HG: How did you begin the quilt shop?
EW: [Mrs. Witmer’s mother ran the quilt shop for twenty-six years and Mrs. Witmer has taken over for the past eighteen years. The business initially began when a fabric salesman from Philadelphia appeared one day and said he could take a group of quilts to sell in Philadelphia. Mrs. Witmer’s mother put together twelve quilts for him to bring back with him. Later he returned with ten and said he could only sell two. At that point, Mrs. Witmer’s father told his wife to put a sign out advertising the quilts for sale.]
HG: Did your mother tastes in color similar to yours?
EW: Yes, but during the first years of the shop half the quilts she sold were tans and browns. Sometimes they had avocado, but that color went out. She had one with hex signs, horse and buggy, and a barn. Her designs were appliqué. With appliqué you are not limited to squares and triangles.
HG: I noticed that you signed a quilt for the customers that were here earlier. When did you begin signing quilts?
EW: I occasionally signed quilts when people asked. In the past couple years I’ve been signing most of them. A 1200 dollar one gets signed in thread.
HG: Do you donate quilts to charity auctions?
EW: I do a lot of donations. The more I give the more I sell. For the Make-A-Wish Foundation I donated a cross-stitch with six different transportation vehicles. [Mrs. Witmer mentions several other charitable organizations to which she has contributed.]
HG: What is your favorite pattern?
EW: “Emma’s Dream.” [Mrs. Witmer designed the “Emma’s Dream” appliqué pattern. Before the interview she explained the pattern to a customer and said, ‘I have pretty dreams, don’t I?’] I do have pretty dreams, but I have to turn them off at night or I won’t stop going. I have to get up early in the morning to get more quilts ready. I saw a picture in a magazine from a quilt show. That gave me an idea. I got out a Baltimore Beauties pattern and did some free hand drawing. I was going to name it Victorian Romance, but my friends insisted I name it “Emma’s Dream.”
HG: How is this “Emma’s Dream” different than others you have made?
EW: I have added lace. The original way of doing it was with two rows of color. Every one is a little different. There is a rose placed in the center of the circle in the center of the bow at the top. Another “Emma’s Dream” being made has twelve different blues. Blue is my favorite color. In this quilt there are a lot of different rose and blue colors, with green and yellow to break it up because it gets too pink. I designed the corner so it doesn’t hand on the floor of a double bed.
HG: Do other members of your family quilt?
EW: Yes. I have a sister near Kutztown that is also in the quilt business. Her shop is called Quilting Friends. She and I are different, with some similarities.
HG: How are you different?
EW: She has created a few designs. Rather than buying a pattern she would rather draft them to fit. I’d rather buy the pattern ready made to save time. [Mrs. Witmer’s shop is larger than her sister’s shop, and her sister’s shop is also part of a farm and produce shop.]
HG: What makes a great quilt?
EW: Sometimes you will have a red and white quilt with fine little pieces. One time I counted 105 different fabrics and not one was brighter. Anything that makes the quilt say, ‘Wow.” Not everybody likes vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce. Some people like butterscotch. [Mrs. Witmer was once on the television show Simply Quilts. Rachel Pelman, a Lancaster quilter who designed the popular “Country Bride” pattern, was also on the show. Mrs. Witmer laid out a “Country Bride” quilts in an unusual color scheme and Rachel Pelman asked her what pattern it was. Mrs. Witmer uses this as an example of how color can really change the visual effect of a pattern.] It’s almost endless what we can do with the fabric choices we have today.
HG: How can someone become a great quilter?
EW: Practice. Some people don’t practice to do fine stitching and some don’t have the ability to do fine stitching. [Mrs. Witmer tells the story of teaching a young lady to quilt. The student said she simply couldn’t get the stitches to come out nicely. Mrs. Witmer relieved a bit of the taughtness of the quilting frame and the young woman was then able to quilt fine stitching. The fabric had simply been too taught.] Using a good needle is also important.
HG: How can the art of quilting be preserved for the future?
EW: By teaching the younger people to appreciate needlework. Quilts have made a comeback. Lancaster is the quilt capitol. Some say Paducah, Kentucky is the quilt capitol, and maybe it is for designing quilts but not quilt sales.
HG: Have you taught young people to sew?
EW: Our children know how to sew, especially clothing. My oldest daughter has a fine stitch but it takes her longer. My younger daughter has three children and helps on a dairy farm, so she doesn’t have much time to quilt.
HG: Do you make quilts for members of your family?
EW: Yes. As they get married, my daughters have eight quilts. The boys get two. My grandchildren get a quilt when they turn sixteen. I don’t know why I wait until they are sixteen to give them a quilt.
HG: What do you like about running a quilt shop?
EW: Making people happy by having the perfect quilt. They send me wallpaper and we go from there. Sometimes they bring in designer sheets and towels from the bathroom to match colors. I don’t sell patterns and supplies. I tell them Lancaster County is quilts. In any other part of the country a quilt shop sells supplies.
HG: Do you purchase your supplies in the area?
EW: I send for some. Fabric salesmen come with suitcases and sometimes with a truck. It’s my downfall. I’m like a kid in a candy store, one in every flavor.
HG: Do you travel to area quilt shows?
EW: I have taken in the Heritage Center quilt show. One time I might get to Colonial Williamsburg. Another dream is visiting the Shelbourne Museum.
HG: Do you have younger Mennonite ladies working for you?
EW: Yes. Young Mennonite women enjoy doing the piecing because you can pick it up and put it away easier. Also senior citizens. Young mothers and senior citizens still need to cook and clean for the men. You can do it in your spare time. If you really enjoy something you will find more spare time. I have a mug that reads, ‘Quilting Forever, Housework Whenever.’
HG: What type of work do the Hmong ladies in the area like to do?
EW: The Hmong from Laos do a lot of the fine stitching. Appliqué is what they like to do.
HG: When did you first start making quilts with Hmong patches? [Mrs. Witmer has made some quilts with patches she purchases from Hmong women. The patches are decorated with very intricate reverse appliqué stitching.]
EW: Approximately eight years ago. The Hmong brought me some squares and said I could purchase some and I would be helping people and I would have something to keep. So I did something with them. At first I called the quilts “Hmong-Amish” quilts. It just didn’t sound right. It didn’t sound appealing to me, I guess.
HG: What do you call these quilts now?
EW: I say they are the combined Hmong and Amish. I call them “Harmony A-Hmong the Cultures.” I sold one to a woman in England. She said she wanted to show people what fine needlework really is. Most people who buy them are needleworkers because they know what goes into them.
HG: [Shortly before leaving the interviewer spoke with Mrs. Witmer about spots and imperfections on quilts.]
EW: When a quilt gets messed up you can take it down and wrap up. If you take a painting down, you can’t do anything with it.
QSOS ID: PH-04
Interviewee: Emma Witmer
Interviewer: Heather Gibson
Transcriber: Heather Gibson
Location: New Holland, Pennsylvania
Quilters’ S.O.S. – Save Our Stories (QSOS) creates, through recorded interviews, a broadly accessible body of information concerning quiltmaking, both present-day and in living memory. Our downloadable QSOS Guidebook has everything you need to conduct your own QSOS interviews. Our archive for the original audio recordings and photographs is the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
QSOS volunteers from across the country conduct and transcribe these interviews. We appreciate their generosity of time and dedication to the project. We are always looking for guilds, organizations and individuals to undertake their own QSOS projects and join us. Find out how you can get involved with QSOS.