Emma Parker (EP): This is Emma Parker, today’s date is November third, it’s 2:15 and I’m here conducting an interview with Kathleen McCrady for Quilters’ S.O.S. Save Our Stories, a project of The Alliance for American Quilts. Kathleen and I are at the International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas. Kathleen, will you tell me about the quilt that you brought today, or that you’re talking about today?
Kathleen McCrady (KM): Okay. Well it’s called Star Medallion with Ninety-Six Baskets. It’s made, there was a quilt made about 1880 that was published in a magazine and I thought that it would be a really neat thing to do, to make a quilt like that. It’s hanging in the show today, and it’s won a third place award. I live in Austin, Texas and we had a show last year and it won best of show in Austin [Texas.] so it has some recent history.
EP: Why did you choose this quilt to talk about in our interview today?
KM: Well, because first of all it’s here, and second of all I can’t carry quilts around with me, so they agreed for me to use this quilt, it was easier for me to do that.
EP: Do you enter a lot of quilts in shows?
KM: I have in the past, and I do, sometimes in our own show, I’ve not had my quilts judged and sometimes I do, it just depends. This is the first quilt I have entered here in about three years. I’ve just haven’t entered.
EP: How many quilts do you have at the show here today?
KM: I have this one of course, and in the new quilt book that’s called Texas Lonestar Three, I have three quilts in that book, and one of those quilts is here. The Center for American History in the University of Texas has a collection of memorabilia that I’ve donated to them, and they have an exhibit here and I have four quilts in that exhibit.
KM: One of them is the Texas Sesquicentennial quilt. In Texas we celebrated the sesquicentennial in 1986 and it was the banner for that exhibit. One of the quilts is called 60s Op-art Quilt. The top was made by my mother-in-law in the 60s, and the quilt top was given to me and I quilted it and it’s hanging in the show. The, my, when my husband and I were married fifty years, my kids and family secretly had blocks given to people to do of state bird and flowers and each family put their name on one of those blocks and so that quilt was given, the quilt top was assembled for the anniversary and that quilt is here.
EP: Oh wow, that’s wonderful.
KM: The fourth quilt, oh, well I think that’s all of them. Anyway, oh I have a, in the, in the I.Q.A. show they have a an auction and there’s a little quilt in the auction that’s about this size of this quilt.
EP: So it’s a smaller version.
KM: Smaller measurements. It includes this border right here. Only the star is smaller and they’re smaller.
EP: Right. What happened to that quilt after the show?
KM: Which one?
EP: This [inaudible.]
KM: Eventually it will come home with me, but they’ve asked me if they could keep it for a traveling exhibit next year, and so it wont come home now but it will eventually, after.
EP: Where will it live? Will it live in your house?
KM: Yup, it’ll live with me for a while. I don’t have anybody yet designated for it. We’ve done that all, most of my quilts, but sometimes it takes me a little while to decide what I want to do with it.
EP: Big decision.
KM: Yes, it is.
EP: How long have you been quiltmaking? What age did you start?
KM: I learned to sew when I was about nine years old, and made, tried to make a dress of course with my mom’s help, and I’ve embroidered all when I was a kid. I learned to quilt, my mother quilted when I was a teenager and I learned to quilt on the quilts she would have in the frame, but I didn’t piece quilts until after I married and started my own scrap bag sewing for my children. My husband’s mother was a quilter, and she gave me tops and you know, things like that. I’ve been quilting probably about sixty years.
EP: How many hours a week do you quilt?
KM: It’s really difficult to say. I try to quilt, presently I can’t quilt but about forty-five minutes at a time, I try to save my hands, I would quilt all day long if I could, that’s the part I enjoy the most. It’s kind of mesmerizing, you’re not, you know, it’s not any, you just, I don’t know what it is about it, but I just love the quilting.
EP: It’s rhythmical. Do you, are all your quilts handquilted?
KM: No. The quilts I’ve made for family and kids to use I have longarm quilted, I don’t, I can’t, I’m not going to do that, I’ve got too many kids to do that for. [coughs.] Excuse me.
EP: How about piecing? Do you machine piece your quilts primarily?
KM: This quilt is hand pieced. Most of mine, well not say most, most of my quilts that are in shows are hand pieced, but sometimes I do machine piece quilts. I don’t enjoy the machine piecing like I do, I like to sit and you know, we watch ball games and we watch shows and have, always have something to do.
EP: Do you have an earliest quilting memory? Do you remember learning to sew when you were nine?
KM: Yes I remember that. Actually, there’s a family quilt and it, there again that quilt is in the Center for American History, that lists my mother’s family and it belonged to my grandmother made it, and in that quilt is a block that has my name on it and six years old on it, now I don’t remember that, I’m sure I didn’t make the block but you can tell by the embroidery that I did the embroidery [coughs.] I don’t know. Well we’re both hooked up I was going to get some water, next time somebody comes by we’ll have them–
EP: We’ll flag them down. Do you belong to any quilt groups of guilds?
KM: Well we have Austin [Texas.] area quilt guild in Austin [Texas.], of course I belong to the A.I.Q.A. here in Houston [Texas.], I belong to the group that’s doing this Save Our Stories, I did belong to the quilt group in Paducah [Texas.] but I don’t do that anymore, and one that publishes that book every year of people’s research.
EP: The quilt study group maybe?
EP: Do you think it’s important; do you enjoy belonging to those communities?
EP: What are your favorites; do you have favorite techniques or materials? Do you use exclusively cotton or do you appliqué?
KM: Yes I appliqué, and I enjoy appliqué, and I enjoy piecing and I don’t know that I could make a choice there. I try to use 100% cotton fabrics in my quilts that I hand piece and make. Early on in the 60s, 70s we didn’t have that choice because of polyester coming in and also at the same time, the polyester batting was available and when it first hit the market, I thought that was the best thing that ever happened because it was so easy to quilt, but it has its drawbacks now. Occasionally I used a blend because it’s easier to handquilt, the cotton, for my hands, its just a little, you have the resistance of the cotton, but I’d love, if possible have 100% cotton, but depending on what the quilt is going to be used for. This quilt has a combination 80/20, and it was a whole lot easier, even then it was hard to quilt because the background of this quilt is really dense and it was a little bit difficult to needle, you know.
EP: Where do you get your quilting supplies? Do you have a local quilt shop?
KM: We have in Austin [Texas.] we have two shops in my area of town, and there are others south in Austin [Texas.] and I don’t shop in those, I did drive recently to get some fabric that I wanted that they had and the other one didn’t, but no I shop at those two stores, and sometimes I order from Hancock in Paducah [Texas.] occasionally, not always, but occasionally.
EP: You said that handquilting is your favorite part of making a quilt, are there any parts that you don’t like particularly or that feel like chores?
KM: Yes, making the back, and putting borders on [laughs.]
EP: What is it about borders?
KM: Well, you got to measure, you’ve got to cut, you’ve got to fit that border to this right here and sometimes your piecing on hand by hand or machine and that inches, it just somehow it doesn’t match up [laughs.] and you want to be sure the two sides are equal and the two tops are equal and you have to really watch it.
EP: There’s a lot of math involved.
KM: Lot of math, lot of math.
EP: Where do you, do you have a special room in your house for quilting or what is your studio like?
KM: Right now, I do, with we of course our kids are all married and away from home and I have a quite a large room that at one time was our den, and we decided to use our living room to live in, and I’d use this room for this purpose, and so I’ve got enough room spread out that it sort of gets a mess all the time, but I can keep it all in that room.
EP: Do you have a design wall?
KM: I have a design wall that, flannel on it, it’s a wonderful tool, wonderful tool.
EP: What’s the process of designing a quilt? Do you start with a pattern that exists already? Pick a fabric you like?
KM: It depends. I’m a traditional quiltmaker by whatever, because that’s where I come from. It does not mean that I’ve not made quilts that deviate from that, but it’s not my favorite. Unless it’s something I really want to have a little piece or a pattern of, then I just use, sometimes I draft my own, sometimes I look at a picture and draft it from there, sometimes I use a purchased pattern if I want to. If it’s already done, why do it over, you know?
EP: [laughs.] Let’s see here, this is, here’s a question I’m not sure what it means but, how do you balance your time?
EP: Do you ever find that you have to–
KM: I have all the time I need that I want to do this because I don’t have family to have to do for anymore except my husband and myself. On the other hand I have to balance my time with what physically things I’m doing; I can’t cut with a rotary cutter long at a time because I’m going to use this arm and this elbow and this back and I can’t sit at the sewing machine for, I could do it all hours, but I can’t do that, so I have to, you know, I have to just kind of time myself, and when I handquilt I have to time myself because I would sit there until I, but I can tell when I’m just about ready to quit, then if I don’t quit, then I will lose that. I have to be pretty hard on myself and say, “You have to stop now.”
EP: Has quiltmaking impacted you family? Has it brought you closer together or does it drive anybody nuts? [laughs.]
KM: As much as I do in my house, you would think my husband would just be really upset with me, but he never has been irritated by it. He grew up with a quilting household. No, my family has, of course they’re the benefit of most of my quilts, and I’ve made baby quilts for all the grandchildren, a baby quilt and a bigger quilt. Now I’ve just finished, I have two great-great-grandchildren and I’ve just finished the second child a bigger quilt, she had a baby quilt so now this Christmas when we have our gathering she’ll get her big quilt. She’s about, she’s three, she’s three.
EP: That’s a wonderful gift. So do most of your quilts do end up getting given away to your family?
KM: Yes they do, yeah. I’ve sold a quilt a time or two, I don’t make them to sell, but and I give them away.
EP: Do you make them with a certain family member in mind?
KM: Yes many times I do, especially the grandchildren. I make it something that would be appropriate for a boy or appropriate for a girl, or vice versa, yeah.
EP: Do you sleep under a quilt?
KM: Yes I do.
EP: Do you sleep under one of your quilts?
KM: Yes, when I went, I own some antique quilts but I don’t sleep under them [laughs.] I’ve always had quilts on my bed, and I’ve nearly always have quilts on my bed as the top cover with dust ruffle or something, which is the way my bed is now.
EP: Do you change that often just according to your whim?
KM: Yeah. I’ll get kind of tired of it after a while and I’ll go get another one [laughs.]
EP: Change of scenery, that’s excellent. What do you think makes a good quilt?
KM: Well I look for, I look for color balance in a quilt, I look for workmanship in a quilt, but now that does not mean that people who don’t have the skills that their quilts aren’t meaningful, that’s not it at all, but personally if a person isn’t a quilter, then they need to improve themselves as they go along and of course the first quilts you make are not going to be that top quilt. The use of color, the way that the quilt, of course in a show, a lot of time it’s the way the quilt hangs, if it’s cut so good, it’s going to hang straight, mine up there now is a little wavy.
KM: A lot of times it’s the uniqueness of how people use fabric and of course a lot of people are making quilts that are uniquely theirs, they designed it, you know all of that and a lot of things makes a good quilt. I think you have to look hard to see a quilt that’s not good in some respect; you always can say something good about a quilt.
EP: Do you have favorite colors and shapes you like to use in your quilts?
KM: I don’t think you could see in the quilts I’ve made that there’s a line of the same color in all of them, probably not. I, in these last eight or ten or fifteen years I’ve gotten so I’ve just loved turquoise, that color, that light, it’s kind of, it’s not the dark, but you k now it’s kind of mellow, and I gravitate toward that, I’ll buy a little piece of fabric when I see one [laughs.] but I’ve never made a whole quilt out of them.
EP: That’ll be the next quilt, turquoise quilt.
EP: Do you have, do you have favorite quiltmakers or quiltmakers you admire particularly?
KM: Yes I don’t know if I could name any one person, I’ve had Katherine Anthony, you know, her daughter, well anyway, she makes, Katherine Anthony was a quilt shop owner here in Houston [Texas.] in the early 80s and she and I got acquainted and she helped me in a lot of ways in of course I already quilted by then, I had been a long time but she just helped me kind of fine tune a lot of things, and she, I got into appraising quilts through situations I knew about with her and she helped me along with dating quilts and but of course I admire a lot of these people who do work that is just exemplary, it’s just wonderful to see, and young people that’s coming in it too, want you to keep on keeping on. How long have you quilter?
EP: I’ve been quilting only about three years now.
KM: Oh have you?
EP: I’m hardly a, hardly a good quilter but I do–
KM: Well, you can’t expect that all, that’s a gradual thing. Did you have quilting in your family?
EP: I didn’t.
KM: Oh really?
EP: I’m the first one.
KM: Well congratulations.
EP: But I hope I’m not the last.
KM: No, you’ll pass it on.
EP: You think so? It always does seem like there’s a really big community of quiltmakers in Texas. Do you feel like living in Texas has affected your work in anything? A Texas look to your quilts?
KM: Not really, no. I don’t think that you could look at, unless you have something Texas in it. The funny part about, well I have to show you the quilt that’s in the book, up here on the table, it’s a state flowers used with state flower fabric, with every state that has their flower, and the Texas block in that quilt is blue bonnets and but I put in, it’s a basket, it’s a basket and it’s got the flowers in it and I put a little Texas flag at the very top of that. My granddaughter, oh I guess she was probably twenty by this time, I had not quilted that, and I don’t remember why she would have been looking at that quilt top, and she says, “Grandma you got that flag backwards,” [laughs.] and I said, “Oh my goodness, I hadn’t even noticed it,” I had just turned it back and after seeing it in the book up here, and they’ve got a little silhouette in the book, if I’d of had that flag backwards, that’d been awful.
EP: That’s so funny [laughs.] Have you ever used quilts or quiltmaking to get through a hard time? Is it therapeutic for you or just so much fun?
KM: Yes, therapeutic, very therapeutic. Yes I’ve used it to get through some pretty rough times. I’ve raised four kids, and they’ve had their days [laughs.]
EP: That’s challenging.
KM: Yes, yes.
EP: That’s wonderful. Are there other reasons quiltmaking is important to your life? Do you feel like you’re part of a tradition?
KM: Well, I feel like I’m part of a tradition, but it’s the medium that I enjoy the most. I’ve tried all kinds of craftwork from you know, decoupage and knitting and well just about anything to keep my hands busy, but I always come back to quilting. I have to come back and I don’t do, don’t get out of that vain much anymore.
EP: Do you think quilts are important to American life or women’s history?
KM: Oh my yes, oh yes. Quilts have been a connection between families, especially the ones that are made of, names on them. You read in quilt history books, I have a very large collection of quilt history books, I taught a class in my studio in the back when I had it all out there, I set up a studio with, for dating quilts, and I had examples of different times periods and so I would buy any state history quilt book as it was being published and of course every state has quilts in it that you just oh, die for. I don’t, I taught a class in, of quilting, an overview of quilt history for about six years I guess, and I couldn’t take but eight students at a time, my space, but in 1995 I think it was, maybe it was ’95, I decided that I just didn’t want to obligate myself to being tied down to doing a class like once a month or whenever I was doing it. So I had, I collected quite a large mass of stuff, and in 2002 or three I donated, I started, there’s a, connected with the University of Texas there’s the Center for American History who takes donations oh for everything, water [inaudible.] histories, and truckloads of stuff from [inaudible.] anyway, I became acquainted with the people there, and I don’t remember, oh I think I do, I’m trying to think how I ever got connected with that, maybe through Nancy and Carrie because Kate Adams was the director there, she’s retired and is now working back for them part-time, anyway, she took one of my classes. So then I began to wonder what I’m going to do with all of this stuff, my kids can’t, you know, it’s not their [inaudible.] you know, so I had amassed all these publications and monthly magazines and all of that stuff and guilds history and so in 2003 I believe it was, I made a donation there then, and then 2004 or five, I donated the whole, the whole collection of stuff to them.
EP: Wow, I’m sure they were thrilled.
KM: Keeping, I kept some of the antique quilts that I had collected, and I bought some antique quilts after that even, but I’m just about, just now fixing to do my last donation then I’ll have all the quilts taken care of. They’re being appraised right now and sometime in November they can pick up the rest of them so they’ll all be taken care of now.
EP: What’s your next project, your next quilt you’re working on? What are you working on right now?
KM: Actually I’m working on something right now that I’m frustrated about.
EP: Oh no.
KM: I can’t, I have, I’ve never done a, people buy kit quilts and to piece or whatever the fabrics already chosen for you and everything, I had never done one and I got to the place, when I buy fabric for a quilt, I’ll buy like, maybe I won’t need but a quarter yard and I’ll buy a yard, or maybe I’ll buy two or three yards and I won’t need but one, so I have all this fabric left and I thought, “You know, if I buy a kit, all that yardage is done for me, I won’t have all this excess,” so I bought a kit. It was a piece quilt and it had pretty colors and red and blue and everything in it, and that’s about six months ago before, and then I kept thinking, “The next thing I do I’m going to start that,” well, when I got the fabric out to cut it, they had filled that kit with a collection of brown Civil War quilt fabrics and they weren’t the color of the picture in the kit.
EP: Oh no, uh oh.
KM: They’re dark and they’re, and I’m fussing the whole time about these dark pieces.
EP: You had been misled.
KM: I was so, and I thought, oh but anyway, I’ve got it to the place now to put the borders on, but.
EP: But it’s not what you thought it would be?
KM: It’s not what I thought it’d be. The most fun quilt I’ve done recently is a Texas quilt made out of Texas fabric. In September, Moda, do you know who Moda?
KM: Okay, Moda, I didn’t know about this either, Moda had manufactured or at least they bought, they had a collection of all Texas fabrics.
EP: Oh, I didn’t know that.
KM: I don’t know how many. They have this state wide shop hop and then they have regions within that. I don’t do shop hops, never have and I don’t intend to, but one of the quilt shops that I go in to, went in there in the middle of September and here’s this quilt on the wall, just the top, and it’s made out of these Texas fabrics and it’s just the most attractive, the fabrics is just so pretty and she just, she designed, every store was supposed to design something that they you know to use with it, and I stood there and looked at it, and I thought, “I want to make that quilt.” By this time, see a lot of fabrics had already been sold out, so she didn’t have the background fabric and we call a shop in south Austin [Texas.] and they have, still have some, so they’ll hold, anyway, it’s got a center medallion and it’s got, there’s prints that are little blocks that were in the fabric that’s all Texas things, like a steer, like a flag, like blue bonnets, like oh Alamo [Texas.] was in it, you know it’s just all the historical stuff. Then the outside, the outside border is a dark border that is black but it’s got blue bonnets in it, it’s just the neatest thing, and then around this center part it’s got little, it’s got diamonds two inches finished, and I had time with those because you had to make a strip, you know, but anyway that’s what I’ve had, I enjoyed that.
EP: Sounds like a fun quilt to make.
KM: It was, it was, and I could use what fabrics I wanted out of the collection, they weren’t just you know, like she would tell me, “If you need this much of that one,” and still I have fabrics left over [laughs.]
EP: Do you have a big stash?
KM: Not anymore, not really big, big, because I’ve tried to [inaudible.] down and not just buy gobs, I used to go to Hancock or Paducah [Texas], I just to go up there in Hancock [Texas,] and I’d come with boxes of fabric, I’ve made a plunge, I mean a what do you call it when you give something away? Anyway, twice now, my daughter this, one of my daughters is with me today, she was, she decided she would when she was fifty, she wanted to quilt, she did, she could do sewing, but anyway she thought she wanted to make quilts. Well, we, I divided my fabrics in a hurry, then she got a job, she’s a nurse, and she got so she couldn’t, didn’t have time to do that, so we, you know fabrics laying on the shelf is not going to do much good. In Boerne, Texas which is about sixty-five miles from us, they have a women’s prison, and I have a friend that lives there, and she knew about them doing projects, so we took a lot of the fabric up there.
EP: That’s a great use. Is your daughter the only, is she the only–
KM: Only quilter–
EP: Only quilter?
KM: Yeah. She made, she’s made two whole cloth quilts, and she loves the quilting too, and she’s left-handed. I have a granddaughter that’s in her thirties and she wants to learn, she’s made, been making, trying to make a quilt, but she wants, the art things appeal to her, so she’s kind of going that route, and I gave her my little sewing machine recently because she didn’t have a machine and so right now she’s the only one that’s picking it up. Of course my daughter-in-law had, when she married my son, she made her clothes at that time, and she was, could sew, and she got interested, in fact she took a class from me when I was still teaching quilting, and right now she, it led her into a business, she’s a vendor in the show here.
EP: Oh, wow.
KM: Her tent, She’s Scarlet Today is the name of her business and it’s mostly red work, and so, and I’ve done a lot of embroidery for her along for examples and things.
EP: It stays in the family.
EP: That’s fantastic. Do you have any thoughts about quilting in the future? What do you think will happen? What do you hope will happen?
KM: Oh I hope that, I hope that it, well I don’t think it’ll ever go away, I don’t think you know, the quilting in the thirties and forties was a, when up to World War II then it sort of faded away in the fifties and sixties, which you don’t know anything about, and when I was quilting, when I was, in 1950s when we moved to Austin [Texas.], I quilted some during that time and my neighbors thought I was the craziest thing in the world, but with this world wide communication of shows and things like this, I credit Nancy and Carrie for keeping this alive, they’ve promoted quilting and had quilt events, basically all over the United States and in Europe for a while and I think that’s done more to keep it alive than anything.
EP: Well thank you so much for your time. I’d like to thank you for allowing me to interview you today for Quilters’ S.O.S. [Save Our Stories.]–
KM: Well thank you for doing that.
EP: Yes, and so our interview is concluded at 2:46.
Interviewee: Kathleen McCrady
Interviewer: Emma Parker
Transcriber: Alana Zaskowski
Project Name: The International Quilt Festival QSOS
Location: Houston, TX
Time: 2:15 p.m.
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.