Janneken Smucker (YS): Testing, testing, testing, can you speak also Connie–
Connie Watkins (CW): Yes, testing–
JS: Yup I hear you. Great.
JS: Wonderful. My name is Janneken Smucker; I’m here today with Connie Watkins. This is an interview with Quilters’ Save Our Stories. Today’s date is, it’s November 3rd, 2011 and the time is now 2:07 in the afternoon. I’m here at the International Quilt Festival in Houston [Texas.] and we’re going to start off with our touch tone object which is a beautiful quilt Connie has brought with her today. Connie, can you start off by telling me about the quilt?
CW: Okay. I teach quilting, a lot, and I love appliqué and I was asked to teach a Baltimore class and I thought, “Well, okay I can do that, I’ve done a lot of Baltimore quilts,” but I thought, “I want to do one for my family and have a little Texas in it,” so this is my Texas Baltimore quilt. It does have my family name on it, it has the date of my husband and I got married, and my three children on it, with their birthdates, up in that block has all my grandchildren and their birthdates, some of the ruched flowers are from bridesmaid dresses from my daughters and flower girl dresses from my grand daughters when they were in the wedding of the other daughter,. Down here is a ribbon, a ruched ribbon from a mother’s day present from one of my kids when they were little. I just, I wanted it to be Texas so there’s the Elissa, that’s in Galveston [Texas.] Then I have a Texas Christmas cactus to give it a little Texas style to it, and Texas vineyards for my grapes. It’s just a Baltimore with a little Texas flare. All handquilted, all hand appliquéd, and I have some embroidery purse flowers with lots of embroidery because I love any kind of handwork, I love embroidery too.
JS: That’s really fantastic. I like that is has so much family significance to you. What else do you like about this quilt, it clearly has personal meaning, are there other parts of it that really appeal?
CW: Well, I’m very traditional, even though my quilt that’s in the book is not traditional, but I love to keep the tradition of old quilts coming forward and a Baltimore is probably one of the greatest American folklore type quilts, and so that’s probably why I love them. So are the Baltimore quilts. I started on one when my husband got sick, and so I worked on it to keep my mind kind of free a little bit and it’s portable, I could take it with me when I came to Houston [Texas.] for his treatments and things, and so, and I finished it right before he died.
JS: Oh really?
JS: I’m so sorry.
CW: So he got to see it.
JS: How long ago was that?
CW: He died a year ago.
JS: I’m so sorry for your loss.
CW: Oh well thank you, thank you.
JS: Well it’s wonderful that you–
CW: He was my biggest fan and my biggest critic.
CW: If he didn’t like something, in fact he told me about the Elissa, he really liked it, but he said, “Your flags are going the wrong way,” and I said, “Well, I know, but they were the only flags I could find of a Texas flag and that was the direction it was facing.”
JS: [laughs.] You got to go with what you have.
CW: That’s right.
JS: What can you tell me about how you first learned about Baltimore album quilts?
CW: Going to museums and especially on the east coast, and Washington D.C. [Maryland.] and New York, and I was a docent at a historical home in Waco [Texas.] and I got real big into Civil War type quilts, which is my true passion, are Civil War scrap quilts, and so I just have always been drawn to the Baltimore quilts, the red and the greens and the rich colors.
JS: Why do you think that these historic quilts, nineteenth century quilts like Baltimore albums and Civil War quilts that you also like, why do you think they’re important to American history?
CW: It just kind of shows where people were in that period of time. Baltimore quilts are older so they were probably quilts when women had access to fabrics and a little more money, on the east coast to buy fabrics and have fabrics shipped from France. When you get into the Civil War quilts, you may be getting into the western quilts, where on the side of the Mississippi where we didn’t have access to factories, or fabric, so they were truly scrap quilts made from old clothes and old quilts and I just kind of think it puts a place in our history of where people were at that time. I think women, especially need friends, and this was a great place that women, because Baltimore quilts a lot of time were made for weddings, were made as gifts and so maybe one lady would make one block and you know they put them all together and give them as a gift to somebody. It shows the friendship that women had then, that we still have now and need.
JS: Now you teach a class on making Baltimore albums?
CW: I teach lots of different classes, yeah. I’ve taught Baltimore, I’ve taught a lot of appliqué classes because that’s my favorite but I teach a variety. I teach at the college, and I love to teach beginner quilters and I love to get people your age excited into quilting. I do some art quilts just because that will bring a different people in that aren’t interested in this kind of a quilt, but would really like to do a fun art quilt. I like all of them.
JS: How did you get into teaching?
CW: I guess just from my friends, they wanted me to show them how to do things and then someone would call me and say, “Connie would you come teach at the college? Would you teach a quilting class at the college?” or, “Would you come to the quilt shop and teach one there?” Just from, you know, people getting, looking at my quilts and wanting to just learn how to make them.
JS: How did you learn yourself?
CW: I started quilting when I was, I started really when I was about five, making doll quilts. My grandmother, I can remember going to her house, she lived out in the country in Illinois and lived out on a farm, and every quilt on her house, in our bed had a quilt on it and everything was embroidered. She first showed me how to do embroidery, and so my first quilts were embroidery type quilts. Then as I grew up a little bit, my dad got me a sewing machine and so, then I started making doll quilts and quilts for me, then I started sewing some and then after I got married and had children, then I made baby quilts and so it just revolved. Then finally, I got to a point where I thought, “Well I really should learn how to do this right,” because I had been doing it self-taught for so many years, so I started taking classes. When probably in the late 80s and early 90s I started taking classes.
JS: What do you like about teaching other people to quilt? You mentioned beginners, what is exciting about that to you?
CW: Just that they can take a piece of fabric and make something out of it, it’s something they wouldn’t expect, just the process of, because I love quilting, it’s my passion, it’s not just a hobby, and so I just love to pass it on because I’m so afraid that if we don’t get young people interested in quilting, that when I die it’ll be gone.
JS: Have you given quilts to family members that they–
CW: Oh yeah, they stand in line for them.
JS: I’m sure they do.
CW: Yeah, and my daughter, my two daughters order them like pizza.
JS: Its buy one get one free? [laughs.]
CW: They call me and say, “Oh mom, so and so is having a baby, will you make me a baby quilt?” Then when I truly make a large quilt or something, usually before it’s even finished, they’ll start saying, “Well that one’s mine,” and the other one will say, “No, mom that’s mine,” and my Jeff will say, my son will say, “Well you got to save some for me,” so anything that he has decided, anything that has the name Watkins on it, is his, because he is the only true Watkins because the girls got married. That has not made my girls really happy because some of my prettiest quilts do have the name on it, but he’s decided that was his, his birth right.
JS: [laughs.] Do you use a quilt on your own bed?
CW: Oh yes babe, I have quilts on all my beds. My children have quilts on all their beds. We trade them out and everybody’s got Christmas quilts on all their beds and I’ve got, my house has a lot of quilts on the walls and on couches, everybody’s got to have a couch quilt to watch TV>
JS: Of course.
CW: Right. So oh yeah, my, I have quilts everywhere.
JS: They’re all ones that you’ve made?
CW: Yes, yes. Lots of family members, I’ve never met a Christmas quilt that I didn’t like, so I’ve made lots of Christmas quilts and almost everybody in my family wants a Christmas quilt, because that’s something even if you don’t have a house that’s suited to quilting, you can always bring it out at Christmas.
JS: Now you talked about when you were a child, your grandmother in Illinois, can you tell me some more memories of her sewing or?
CW: I was young when she died, but she was truly my inspiration as far as sewing because I just loved even her tea towels in the kitchen were embroidered and pillowcases were all embroidered and every quilt. Her quilts weren’t like this type of quilt, they were scrap quilts, and feed sack quilts, they were just happy; you couldn’t go in her house and not be happy because there were quilts everywhere. Even though she died when I was quite young, I’ll always remember that, always, because my other grandmothermother sewed but not quilts. She was my really true only one in close family that sewed.
JS: Do you belong to a quilt guild or other groups?
CW: I belong to two quilt guilds; I belong to one in Waco [Texas.] and I belong to one in Temple [Texas.] which is about thirty miles south of Waco [Texas.] I have a group of bee ladies and we’ve been quilting together about sixteen years now and we meet once a week at each other’s houses and not only are we all quilters but we’re just true friends. You know, everybody supported people through illnesses and husbands passing and so without my bee I would’ve had a tough time when my husband died.
JS: Right, I imagine so; it’s good to have close friends. When you meet weekly, do you all bring your own projects or do you sometimes quilt on each others?
CW: Well, and we do, we do find most of the time we will bring our own projects and you know, when you’re coming to somebody’s house, you know you bring some kind of handwork with you.
JS: You could bring a block like this?
CW: Yes, and something like that, or you’ll be maybe quilting on something, probably three-fourths of us in the bee also knit, and so some will bring their knitting because it’s portable but then we do our little group challenges. We’ll do, we’ll say, “Okay, we’re going to pick one pattern and each of us pick out our fabric fabrics,” and we may make the same quilt on our own time, but all out of only different fabrics and so we do that probably about once a year or so we’ll do that. Then we all will make a charity quilt for the guild when we’re doing them for babies and we did them for the veterans at the Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio [Texas.] and sent quilts down there and for burn patients and for people that are taking chemo, we’ve done charity quilts for them. We do a little bit of everything.
JS: Do you think there’s something about quilts in particular that brings people together in this way?
CW: Oh yeah, oh yeah.
JS: What do you think it is?
CW: I think it’s the love in the quilts because you know, it takes a lot of time to make a quilt and a lot of effort and it’s not just an old blanket, and you know, so I think the love that’s behind it, making of them, and the friendship and fellowship of making quilts together just ties people together.
JS: Can you tell me about the room in your home or your studio where you work, what it’s like?
CW: Well, it started out as a bedroom [laughs.], it really did, it had a bed and everything in there. Slowly but surely, all that’s gone now and I just have just all my sewing in there. I do not have a sewing wall, a design wall, because I don’t have a wall that’s free. All the walls that I have, have quilts on them and so I really want, I’ve seen something where I can put up a shelf and you pull down a design wall, and I’m going to look into that, but right now I have a huge floor space that I lay my blocks out on and do, but I don’t have a wall unfortunately.
JS: And you do a lot of your work by hand, do you do that also in that room or do, you say that’s portable, so?
CW: No in my sewing room is, I actually do my machine sewing and putting quilts together in there. I do my handwork in the den, or my bedroom has a television in it, I’ve got a chair that I sit in is very comfortable because I do a lap quilt, a lap frame.
JS: Like a hoop?
CW: Yeah it’s like a hoop that’s on a swivel thing that I can sit on my lap and if I’m at home, I will probably quilt from seven to ten every night, unless I’m going to, I need to be somewhere.
JS: Every evening?
CW: Every evening, every evening, and then I will do any machine quilting and things like piecing and things in the daytime, I don’t use my machine at night.
JS: What do you think makes a great quilt?
CW: First impression.
CW: I think you know, if people are walking down a row and something catches their eye, I think that’s the first thing they see is the first impression has to be, has to catch them to get them there. Once they get over to it, then it needs to be the workmanship, it really needs to be the workmanship, no matter if it’s machine workmanship or if it’s hand workmanship or whatever it is, I think the workmanship is probably one of the most important things.
JS: I know that you’re a handquilter, do you do any machine?
CW: Uh-huh, the one’s in the book, that’s in Carrie’s book, is machine quilted. I really started machine quilting kind of because I’m not going to live long enough to get them all handquilted.
JS: [laughs.] good policy.
CW: It’s hard to know, you’ve got to start somewhere, so that’s what made me start machine quilting. I really did it very begrudgingly at first, because I thought, “A quilt needs to be hand done,” and I thought, “No, it doesn’t Connie, you know,” and my husband would say, he’d say, “If you’re going to give it away, they don’t know the difference,” so he said, “Start machine quilting,” so I started taking some quilting class, I mean machine quilting, start taking some classes, and I love it, and I’m really pretty good at it now.
JS: Good. Do you use a longarm or do you just use your regular machine?
CW: My regular machine.
CW: Makes it a little harder, but I do.
JS: You figure it out, that’s good. I’d like to ask you a little more about how this quilt in particular got you through a hard time. You mentioned when your husband was ill, did you find quiltmaking almost meditative?
CW: Yes, it was comforting, it was comforting. It was something that when you’re involved in cancer and running back and forth to Houston [Texas.] all the time, your life is hectic and crazy and this is something that was my cornerstone and my rock. I could come back to my quilting because it was something I did all the time that relaxed me, so yeah. I lost my passion for a while, after he died I couldn’t quite finish things, couldn’t pick them up, couldn’t, I had a project that I was doing when he did die that I couldn’t look at for a long time so, but yet I looked at it and the quilt that’s hanging in the traditions exhibit was one that I had started hand piecing while I was at the hospital with him and I had it part way handquilted when he died and I couldn’t finish it. I got to talking to myself and I said, “Bill would have wanted me to finish that quilt,” because he loved it and he knew how I loved quilting and so I had to finish it, and that kind of got my passion back into my quilting again. So yeah, it’s helped me through lots of hard times, lots of hard times.
JS: Where do you find the inspiration for the different designs?
CW: Usually from old quilts. There’s never been an old quilt I don’t like hardly. I’m getting a little bit more out of the box now where I’m not making all just old quilts, but I love to go to museums and look at the quilts and see, and then I may make an old quilt pattern, but make it with a newer fabric, a newer design or something. My son, who tells me I don’t make him enough quilts, I’m shopping for fabric for him this, during the festival.
JS: Oh, here.
CW: Right and his is going to be black and white and a little bit of red, so that’s you know, not real feminine but you know, enough that I won’t get bored but he’ll still like it.
JS: Will he help pick the pattern?
CW: Oh no, no.
JS: That’s up to you?
CW: Yeah. You don’t let people pick patterns because they’ll pick something that’s usually you know, something I don’t want to make, but it’s going to be stars so he can’t, you know, it won’t hurt.
JS: So you clearly have a lot of appliqué skills but you also piece quilts–
CW: I also piece–
JS: This will be a piece quilt maybe–
CW: Like the one that’s in the book is all pieced.
CW: And I sewed for so many years that I don’t mind curve piecing, I don’t mind any of that just because that was something I did before so it doesn’t bother me like it scares some people.
JS: Right, you knew how from making–
CW: Yeah, marking clothing.
JS: Sure. For the older quilts you’re interested in, do you adapt your, draft your own pattern based on looking at a photo of an old quilt sometimes?
CW: Lots of times, lots of times like when I did, you know, I will take part of a traditional basket or something but then when I put the flowers in the basket, I’ll put my own flowers in or my own design of flowers so I may start with a pattern and then just completely change it to what I like.
JS: Sure, good. What do you think the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers is today?
CW: Time; people are so busy and are being pulled in so many different directions and mamas of young children and you know you’re just hoping to get supper on the table and you now it’s not so much me because I have more time but I think time is the hardest for people. Fabrics are getting very expensive so you can’t just buy fabric because you like it anymore, you almost plan what you’re going to buy because of that. I really think time is the hardest.
JS: Speaking of fabric, do you, at this point, since you’ve been a quiltmaker for many years, have quite a, quite a stash?
CW: Oh yeah [laughs.] I really do but you always need more.
JS: So you do go out still and buy for specific projects?
CW: Oh yeah. Well, and I make a lot of scrap quilts, but sometimes you don’t have quite enough of one color when you’re planning the quilt and so you may have to just augment your scraps by buying a few more something’s, you know.
CW: Oh yeah, I’ve got lots of fabric.
JS: Will you be doing some shopping here?
CW: Oh I already have, yes.
CW: I already have.
JS: Can you tell me an amusing story, I don’t know if it would be from teaching or working with your bee or other guilds, but something funny about your experience making quilts?
CW: Well I was down here for the show one year and it was one year when I wasn’t staying at my daughter’s house, I was staying with a friend out at one of the hotels in the medical center and we rode the busses in. There was this lady sitting across the bus from me and she kept looking at me and I thought, “What have I done?” you know, and she kept looking, and she was smiling, and she was a young lady and she was with an older lady and she just kept looking over at me and she finally said something. She said, “I know you don’t know who I am but I know you,” and I said, “Oh I’m sorry, I don’t recognize you,” and she said, “Well, it’s all your fault that I’m here,” and I said, “Oh really?” and she said, “You have got me hooked on quilting,” she said, “I took one of your beginner classes at the college in Waco [Texas.],” and she said, “I just fell in love with quilting,” and she said, “When I first took your class, I shouldn’t even have taken it because I really wasn’t even a sewer,” but she said, “You took me in and showed me how to thread the sewing machine and were so patient with me,” and she said, “Now I am absolutely hooked.”
CW: So that made me feel good.
JS: That’s good, yeah, it’s good to be blamed for something like that.
CW: That’s right. You know, I’ve been blamed for worse, right?
JS: Now your daughters, they clearly love quilts but have they ever expressed interest in learning?
CW: No. My girls don’t quilt, they love quilts and they love all my quilts, but no, they don’t want to learn how to quilt. My granddaughters are a little better, they’re both grown, at Adrian College [Michigan.] now, and I taught them to do some basic little quilting when they were younger and of course they’re too busy in college now, but they learned something so many someday they will come back to it.
CW: Especially my oldest granddaughter, she loves to do things with her hands, so she may come back to it when she’s grown.
JS: What would be some advice you would give her if she came back to quiltmaking? Or to actually you know–
JS: Pursue it later.
CW: Just to enjoy it, if you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it, find something else that you do enjoy. Life’s too short not to do things because most of the time some people get stuck in jobs they don’t enjoy, they get stuck in situations they don’t enjoy, whatever you do with your own free time, make sure you love it.
JS: That is good advice. I’m interested in what you think about displaying quilts as art objects versus using them on beds in utility, like, do you think that quilts should be in both places or is one more important than the other?
CW: Oh yeah, wherever you need them, wherever you need them. I have quilts on my wall and they’re usually ones that will be more like this that aren’t really great quilts to wash, because of all the ribbons and all the satin and the different fabrics, and they can be spot cleaned but it would be very hard to wash them, and so they’re very much display quilts. Then, I have all kinds of quilts that are quilt quilts, that you really, and they are usually my piece quilts and they go in the wash machine and when I make baby quilts for babies, I tell the mama, “Let this baby use this quilt, babies need quilts,” if they ruin it, or mess it up, or wear it out, I’ll make them another one, I said, “Let this baby use this quilt, don’t hang that baby quilt on the wall, you give that quilt to the baby.” So I think they, they have places, both places, and art quilts are beautiful and I love them and you know, so, that’s a, that has brought into our industry more fabric and more good things, the art quilts, because I know a lot of quilters will complain, “Oh all the quilts are art quilts now,” but they have brought techniques, and things into our world that have made our lives easier, more fabrics, you know, more different tools to make things easier for us; so I love all, you know I think there’s a place for all of them.
JS: Can you tell me about a tool, something that you’ve encountered more recently in, since art quilts have become more popular?
CW: Well, like you know when I first started quilting, you didn’t have rotary cutters and rotary mats and you had to use paper patterns and templates and it took forever to make something. And now man, you can strip cut and I can make a log cabin quilt in a week and it’s just revolutionized and you know, made it more fun, easier and more fun.
JS: Yeah. You mentioned that you’re really drawn to older quilts from seeing them in a museum, what makes a quilt worthy of being in a museum?
CW: First impression again, I think first impression, the workmanship, and for it to go in a museum I think it’s really crucial to have history of the quilt, that’s why I, whenever I tell my people when I teach, or whatever, or a friend that has a quilt, if you know anything about that quilt, you need to put it down now and attach it to the quilt, whether it’s a label, paper label, that you make a pocket and put it in, or if it’s a cloth label, if you know anything about that quilt, document it because, you know a quilt hanging in the museum that says, “Artist unknown,” “Date unknown,” it’s just not as interesting as a quilt that they can say this is made by Connie Watkins from Waco, Texas, you know and it was made in whatever year and I think that just makes quilts special. My mother was very ill in the hospital in Fort Worth [Texas.], and I was staying in her apartment at night, and staying with her in the daytime, and I was cleaning her apartment out because I knew she wasn’t getting out of the hospital, and I found a quilt in the bottom of her closet, and she knew I’m a quilter, and I got up to the hospital and I said, “Mama,” I said, “I found a wonderful quilt in your closet, in the bottom of your closet on the floor,” and she said, “Oh that old thing?” and I said, “That old thing is gorgeous mother,” I said. It was one inch squares, huge, with a beautiful little prairie point border on it, and it was 30s fabrics so it wasn’t beautiful fabric or anything but it was a beautiful quilt, and she said, “Oh that’s just my wedding quilt,” and I had not a clue and she died like two weeks later. I would have never known that quilts history if she hadn’t of told me and it was made by a neighbor next door, mother was the oldest of eight, her neighbor next door they called Grandmother Agle, she had thirteen children, and she made quilts for every kid in the neighborhood when they got married, so she made that quilt for my mother when she got married, and I would have never known that. So it just, I just had chill bumps all over me when she told me.
JS: What happened to that quilt?
CW: It’s mine, and it’s got a label on it [laughs.]
JS: Good, well that’s wonderful.
CW: And take pictures of your quilts too.
JS: Preserve memories, yes definitely. Before your interview we were looking at the gorgeous new book of Lonestar quilts, can you tell me what it means to you to be featured in that book?
CW: It was so special. I had just gotten home from the hospital when my husband died, got home from Houston [Texas.] and had the service and the funeral and everything and I was feeling really low because I got married when I was seventeen, I was married forty-six years, you know and I had never been by myself, and the telephone rings, and Carmen from the book, from Carrie’s office, called said, “Connie, we’ve been trying to find you, we want your quilt in Carrie’s book,” and I was just so overwhelmed that I thought, “They want my quilt?” and it had hung in Houston [Texas.] one time and it had been in a magazine so you know, I knew people had seen it but when she wanted to include it in her book because I have her other books on Texas quilts, that I was just very, very honored. I have just been so excited, real excited.
JS: Well the book really is spectacular.
CW: And it’s a beautiful book, it is beautiful.
JS: Can you tell me about some of the other quilts in there that you’ve noticed or other quiltmakers that you are admire?
CW: Gosh, I can’t even think of any right now because they’re just all so wonderful, they’re just, and most of them I have of course seen before because I come every year and most of them had been in Houston [Texas.] at one time the other so I had recognized them. A dear friend of mine who is not in the book, but was one of my biggest inspirations because she’s a wonderful appliquér, and so is Darlene Christopherson and she’s written a couple of books and she does beautiful hand appliqué and she was a, lived in Virginia for a long time and studied a lot of the old antique quilts, she helped design a couple of my blocks for me with the birds in them. So she is probably my true inspiration and she was so excited when I got chosen for the book.
JS: It is really an honor.
CW: For sure.
JS: I’m wondering if there are any questions that I’ve neglected to ask you, or any stories, or other quilts you’d like to tell me about as part of our interview today.
CW: Well I do have a quilt hanging in the exhibit.
JS: Tell me about it.
CW: It’s in the traditions exhibit and it actually one that’s a little basket quilt, it’s a piece quilt but its all hand pieced because I did each block while I sat in the hospital with my husband.
JS: That quilt right.
CW: So that one is special to me. I did finish it in time to get it in the exhibit and so it’s special to me too.
JS: Sure. Are there quilts, I know that many of your family members and friends own some of your quilts, are there quilts in other collections or places they’ve ended up?
CW: Not that I know of, not that, just in lots of family members, you know lots of family members and a couple that had been in magazines, featured in a magazine for some reason or other, and like that.
JS: Sure. Well are there any last bits you want to record for posterity as part of our interview today?
CW: I can’t, I just feel very fortunate that I was invited to do this. I just think it’s wonderful that you all are doing this.
JS: Well we are so glad that you came today Connie.
CW: Oh, thank you.
JS: Thank you so much for your time and for joining us here for Quilters’ S.O.S. Save Our Stories at International Quilt Festival 2011. At this point we will conclude our interview, again my name is Janneken Smucker, and I’ve been here today with Connie Watkins, and we’re concluding our Q.S.O.S. [Quilters’ Save Our Stories.] interview
Interviewee: Connie Watkins
Interviewer: Janneken Smucker
Transcriber: Alana Zaskowski
Project Name: The International Quilt Festival QSOS
Location: Houston, TX
Time: 2:07 p.m.
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