Cathey Spies (CS): This is Cathey Spies. Today’s date is September 25, 2015, and I’m here with Deborah Woolley. Hello, Deborah.
Deborah Woolley (DW): Hello.
CS: We’re in her lovely home out here in Tomball, which is just a little way from Houston, Texas. We’re here to talk about her quilt. So tell me about the quilt you’ve made; or touchstone, as we’re going to call it.
DW: Okay. Well, I think probably most people that are born and bred in Texas want a Texas quilt. I had started a bee in my home a number of years ago and we met every Tuesday and it got too big and we moved it to a church and then we moved it to a quilt shop [laughter.] and it just kept growing. And one of the members by the name of Carol Stewart offered to do a block-of-the-month for us and she had a Texas quilt pattern that she was altering and changing it around to make it a little bit more original and so we started on it. I was the only person in the group who finished. And that’s it [laughter.]. I know. I stay with it.
CS: So you might say this quilt has a special meaning for you?
DW: Well, yeah, because it has a lot of personal stuff in it. The blocks are all my favorite choices. The only thing I had was just a rough pattern, so with the applique blocks I just took the liberty and went on. I like to embellish my quilts. I put a lot of things on them and so this was an opportunity to change it with a lot of things. It’s got a lot of charms on it, I like the hand-dyed fabrics in it, you know, it’s just representative. And then I personally did not quilt it. My friend Carol Stewart who taught the class, quilted it by machine, she’s a long-arm quilter. And if you look at the quilt there are initials, our names, you know, there’s all sorts of cowboy symbols. It’s quite lovely. She finished what I started probably. You would have to call it a two-person or joint effort. I think I don’t really enjoy that finishing part. I like the design of it and the colors and the patterns and all that.
CS: So would it be safe to say that if somebody just walked in, like I did, and didn’t know the back story, what would I conclude about you by just looking at this quilt? If I thought, oh my gosh, she made all of this herself. Look at this piece; look at all of these fabrics.
DW: Well, I think probably what you’ll get from me is color. It’s all about color. It’s about a challenge. It’s a big quilt, and to stay with something that big, you know, so she went through a lot of trouble for one person basically. And so I appreciate that from her. You know, I mean, it was fun, I enjoyed it, I like playing with fabrics and manipulating them, and that’s what I got to do.
CS: Which brings me to our next set of questions. Tell me about your interest in quilt making. You just did; it’s all about the fabric and manipulating them.
DW: I think, in my case I got some friends who decided to help me rehab with quilting. I know that are a lot of people who quilting has brought out of a kind of a dark time in their lives. My grandmother was a quilter and did beautiful hand pieced, hand quilted quilts, you know, the sort that you dream about owning, so I knew what quilting was and I had bought quilts from the Amish community. They’re really loved there. But after ’96 I had the time to do it and that’s a big part of it right there; having the time to do it and having the financial resources to be able to do it because quilting is not a cheap hobby. You don’t do it out of necessity now. We do it out of a love for creating something.
CS: It’s true.
DW: I mean, I think probably when quilting started it was a necessity, you know, and people were putting old clothes together because they were cold and today, I don’t think that’s so much our problem. I think now it’s just a way to express ourselves.
CS: So about how many hours a week would you say, on an average, do put into a project once you are getting into a project?
DW: It depends on the project. I mean, different projects call for different things. I’ve only done two quilts with groups of people: this Texas one and another one that’s in my bedroom and those were done over the course of a year, so it was an ongoing process. I worked on them every week, maybe 8 hours to 10. It just depended on what we were doing. A smaller quilt, of course, doesn’t take that much time. I mean, you’re not going to spend a year making that. I don’t like to spend a year any more [laughter.]. My friends tell me I’ve gone to the dark side [laughter.] because I tend to like art quilts. How many big quilts do you need? I mean we’ve got a lot of big quilts. My kids have big quilts and my grandchildren have big quilts, so I just gradually have gone over to smaller, artistic type of things, but they are still technically a quilt. Our definition of quilt is basically two layers of fabric with something in between with stitching to hold it together, you know? That’s a quilt. There’s nothing in the rule books about size. I think when I first started quilting there were what I all the quilt police and everything had to be precise and measured and all this sort of stuff and gradually as I went a long I was thinking, ‘No, I don’t think so [laughter.]. If you don’t see a mistake running past on a horse, then you’re okay. You know, you do it for the love of doing it. I’m not a perfectionist. I’m not competitive. I’ve shown before, but I only show because I’m invited to show not because I want to win anything. I do this for me and not for anybody else.
CS: I love hearing that. So, I see that you were not self-taught. Who did you learn from?
DW: I first started out with some girlfriends teaching me. My first quilt was called the 5/8 Inch Quilt. That’s because I had sewn clothing in my past so I thought everything had a 5/8 inch seam. The little quilt I was making [inaudible.] kept getting smaller and smaller. And so I call that the 5/8 Inch Quilt. I did remake it and it was much bigger when finished. Fortunately, it was all squares and triangles, so it went together okay. That was my first endeavor. After that I started taking classes. My first class I ever took was at Great Expectations, at Karey Bresenhan’s shop when they were out on Memorial, and I did a quilt there when Minay Sirois taught it, and it was all hand pieced, all hand stitched and quilted. The whole thing, you know, which was good because you need to know those skills. I can do them if I want to but I don’t have to. Quilting has become streamlined these days.
CS: Yeah, it really has. I know that your grandmother quilted. She did it all by hand?
DW: All by hand.
CS: Did she have one of those frames that hung from the ceiling?
DW: She had a frame that my mother purchased from probably Jo-Ann’s or someplace. I don’t know where they got it. It may have even come from Woolworth’s. I don’t know. But it was a stand-up frame that she could set up and take down. But she would sit in her chair and quilt, you know? She would hand piece and we would all have quilts. I probably have one of the few double-knit tablecloths ever quilted [laughter.]. My grandmother was a true person who made it from what she had. She didn’t necessarily go out and buy fabric unless it was for a backing, and all the quilts I have from her are made out of our old dresses. So, I can look at them and remember different things, which is a nice memory, whereas today we tend to go to the store and buy what we need.
DW: There is a movement now for re-using that hasn’t been there for a long time. I think we’re going to do a lot more of that. There’s a lot of repurposing going on. And you see that, I think, more in the art quilts end of it than you do in the big traditional piece quilts.
CS: What aspects, one or more, of quilting do you just not enjoy?
DW: Cutting it out.
CS: You didn’t have to think long about that.
DW: No, I don’t like cutting it out. I’m not a straight line person and if you’re cutting for a pattern you have to be very precise and I’m not precise by nature. I’m flawed if you get down to it. Another thing I really don’t like is, I don’t like the actual quilting. I like the design, I like choosing the fabrics and colors, I like putting it together and sewing it together, but in order to do that I must cut, so I do. However, with the invention of the long arms and long-arm quilters, I am so thankful for those women. I do quilting on my small pieces but on the big ones, I’m more than happy to share my quilt with someone.
CS: So what quilting groups do you belong to?
DW: The Tri-County Quilt Guild, I participate in several small groups. I have an art quilt group that meets at my house once a month, I have another group that I attend once a month that is all hand work, then I have another group that I attend once a week that is basically hand work and crazy quilting, and then another group I attend once a month that is strictly crazy quilting. You learn from people. It’s social. It’s what the pioneer women did. They sat around together and quilted together. They never would have gotten very far on their own.
CS: Have you picked up new techniques from some of these?
DW: Oh, yeah. There’s always sharing.
CS: Do you have a favorite, or something that you never knew about until you saw somebody doing it?
DW: I think everything I learn is kind of a new revelation. I attended a lot of classes and tried different techniques. I like techniques. And I’ll go and learn a technique. Whether I use it again or not is not the important thing; it’s exposing yourself. And then when you get around other people who are taking more classes, I’ll say, ‘well, here’s the way I do it,’ you know, everything is new. There’s no one big ah-ha moment or anything like that. I think it’s just a gradual thing; the more you do, the more you know. It’s learning one thing at a time, the more people you’re around.
CS: So tell me about where you go; your studio, your workroom. Are you one of these who just kind of disappears in there and no one may see you for a couple of hours but they know where you are?
DW: Yeah, I have a studio right here in the house. When we got the house we did it. However, now it has expanded. It was the one room, now it’s two rooms totally and half a dozen closets.
CS: Dare we say it’s growing?
DW: It’s spreading like wildfire. Vendors like me because if it’s new I want to try it. I think I’m ADD.
CS: I see you very much using a design wall. Just very at ease with using one. I know that you’ve got one and I can picture you trying different combinations of fabrics or colors together then throwing them down and saying, ‘now let me see.’
DW: If it’s a large quilt, yeah. If it’s a small quilt, not so much. I do a lot of small pieces and they just happen. I kind of have a direction I want to go. Like, if maybe one day I want to see if I can print on tea bags then put tea bags on a quilt, then I do. Or, I may want to paint on a quilt; paint fabric and then use it in a quilt, so that will become integrated [inaudible.]. And then sometimes I’ll put something on the design wall and keep it up there for six months before I finally decide what I want to do with it because I like to design fabric. The quilt shops don’t like me anymore because of that. However, if you have new embellishments or ribbons or trims, or new technique, it’s all good. There’s a lot of room at the table.
CS: We’re going to change focus here for a bit and talk about designs, aesthetics and craftsmanship. Think about this a minute if you need to. What do you think makes a great quilt?
DW: That first glance that you take; whether it grabs your attention or not. And I think, for me personally, there’s a color story that’s got to develop first.
CS: Like, what do you mean by that?
DW: I don’t tend to like quilts that are on a white background. They’re pretty and I can admire them and all that, but that’s not where I like to work. They don’t catch my eye. I prefer something that’s got bright colors and a happy theme on it. Yeah, I like that. But it has to catch my attention and it’s gonna be through color first. That’s what’s going to catch my attention; then I’m going to go look at the workmanship. However, there are many beautiful quilts that I personally would not do that I totally admire the workmanship and the craftsmanship and I totally salute them for the hundreds of hours they put into their craft, because I know what it takes. Just because I choose not to do that doesn’t make it unlikeable, it’s just we work differently. And that’s okay.
CS: Then I think this next question absolutely does not fit here, but I’ll ask it anyway. What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or special collection?
DW: Any quilt. Yeah. There is not one kind of quilt. I believe we need to preserve the past, but we also need to preserve for the future, too. And somewhere in time, I don’t know quite where it happened, we went from bed coverings to art on the wall. I don’t know when that happened, but there’s need for both of them and I think there’s probably a lot of people like me. How many big quilts to you really need?
CS: Can you think back about people, artists, who have influenced you in what you put together; your quilts or your combinations of color?
DW: There are so many people, because I like a lot of different techniques. I like the work of Caryl Bryer Fallert a lot; her use of color, her expression. I don’t think there is just one person. I like Caryl because of her color. I think that’s why her name comes to mind. There are so many talented quilters out there Sharon Schamber, I mean oh my gosh, her work is to die for. But am I willing to give that much of my life to that? I think the thing is with quilting, it is one thing I do, it doesn’t define my whole life.
CS: You keep in it balance? Is that what you’re saying?
DW: I don’t know if it is so much in balance, but sometimes it takes over and then other times it’s in the background. It is just one of many things I like to do. I also weave. I also like to do hand stitching and felting. Fact is, bottom line is that they are all fiber related, and so they are connected. I like to do crazy quilts; that’s a lot of handwork, there’s not a pattern for it, so I like it. It’s innovative.
CS: Let’s talk about machine quilting. Any chance of getting a long-arm quilting machine in your future?
DW: I looked into it one time. I was seriously going to do it. Was going to take one of the bedrooms in my house and put this machine in there. Everything I was looking at was going to cost $30,000 and I was thinking, ‘Hmm, I can get a lot of quilts quilted for $30,000. Yep.’ [laugh.] No choice. There are people who are good at that, and I have no problem with that. A lot of people don’t want to do that because they think it is taking away from quilting. But that’s not the part that I like. It’s not for everybody.
CS: Let’s talk about where quilts fit in American life. We’ve touched on that already: how we’ve gone away from having to use them as a utilitarian thing to gradually seeing them as works of art on walls, in exhibits, we wear them [laughter.].
DW: Taste needs to come into check with this, but it doesn’t always, though it should. I’ve seen some pretty bad things walking around at quilt shows [laughter.]. I have a couple of pieces that my children will say, ‘Please don’t wear that in public’ But fabric permeates every inch of your life. We all wear clothes, we all sleep in beds, you know? Our furniture is upholstered with it, our cars are upholstered with it, and we dry our dishes with it. It’s all pieces of fabric put together in different ways. It’s part of our lives, you can’t get away from it.
CS: Aside from Texas, how do quilts reflect you?
DW: For one thing, my quilts are noisy.
CS: I think they’re bright.
DW: You can just look around the house and there’s color everywhere. I been known to take a traditional pattern and put very strange fabric in it. That’s okay. I think what you can say about mine is that they are bright. They’re colors that I like. And I’m not going to work on a quilt that I don’t like the colors. I think sometimes some quilts don’t come out so good. Those are the ones you might put in the dog’s bed. It happens to everybody once or twice in their lifetime [laughter.].
CS: Pioneer women, as you’ve pointed out, would get together and quilt out of necessity. They relied on those quilts to keep them warm over the months. What aside, and I’m not demeaning the art aspect of it, do you see quilting as a growing part of American life anymore?
DW: In the circle of friends I run into yes, it is. It’s a very viable part. I have acquaintances that go to week-long retreats two or four, five times a year. I tend to go to my groups because number one, I’m going to learn something from somebody. I don’t know what, but I’m going to learn something. Or I’m going to have a chance to share something with someone. And number two, it is social. And I totally believe that for those pioneer women and our ancestors it was very much a social thing that they came together. But for the most part, when you really get down to it, quilting is very solitary. It is an individual endeavor. I do my best work when I’m by myself. I do not do good work when I’m in big groups of people. I learned that about myself. I’m better in a very quiet room working without a lot of things. But, I do that because I’m aware that solitude is not the greatest thing in the world for you. You have to have social interaction.
CS: Do you think that quilts have special meaning for women’s history in America?
DW: Probably yeah, I think so. What was it? One of the World’s Fairs that they issued a call out to women to produce quilts. [inaudible.] And we see more and more men getting involved. I don’t know what the statistics are. And today because quilting is so expensive chances are the person whose doing it is okay financially and not a lot of issues and so their lives are a little different. They’ve got the time, they’ve got the finances and resources to do it. They’re not, you know, so busy that they can’t do it. Or so poor they can’t do it. I mean, it will bankrupt you.
CS: It will. When my mother died many years back, she quilted, my grandmother quilted, all the way back. I don’t know why I didn’t get the bug. I don’t.
DW: It skips generations.
CS: But, there were two huge blanket boxes in her house of just the tops. My dad was in the service and she had a lot of time to sit and she did all this stuff by hand. Her mother did it by hand, so on and so on. There must have been over 100 tops in there. Some of them were pieced together and still had pieces of paper behind them like they had out patterns from newspapers.
DW: Yeah. Actually some people, a long time ago, used to use newspaper as batting for insulation.
CS: I’ve got one that they had used during the depression.
DW: Back in the ‘30’s, I think it was, they used to print quilt patterns in the newspaper and you could mail off and get one, or something like that. And so, they had no choice but to use the newspaper. I’m not a big fan of paper piecing. I find it very time consuming, so my hat is off to them. I know that they did a lot of that. We have so many tools now. We have machines that if we’re clever enough or computer savvy enough, we can get a machine to cut out our pieces for us.
CS: I’ve seen that. Do you ever use a rotary cutter?
DW: Yeah, absolutely.
CS: I see them used more and more often. Thank goodness for rotaries.
DW: Well, I don’t know when the first rotaries came into being, but rotaries were there back in ’96 when I started quilting. I don’t know prior to that how long they have been there. But now they have machines that you can cut out quilt pieces. I have a cutting machine but I don’t use it to cut out quilt pieces. I mean, I just don’t. It’s not what I use it for. But there are some that are specifically created for fabrics. The temptation would probably be there.
CS: Here come the holidays, do your kids wonder if they’re going to get something from Mom in a quilt? Or do you give them a quilt then it’s, ‘Don’t ask me for another one’?
DW: I only make quilts on their request, if they want something. I’ve made them a tee-shirt quilt, it’s a labor of love, but the true compliment comes when you make a quilt because you enjoy it and they say, ‘I really like that quilt; can I have it?’ The chances are they’re going to walk away with it. I have a son who seems to pick the best of the best. He’s not dumb; he knows. He can spot a good quilt.
CS: So, what’s your next quilt show?
DW: My next quilt show? The International Quilt Show [in Houston, Texas.]. I don’t put quilts in stuff anymore. I’m doing it for me.
CS: But we can see you at the International?
DW: Yeah, then I’m going to Tokyo in January.
CS: That’s wonderful.
DW: I’ve been to England, to Birmingham. I love that one. And of course all the local ones and stuff, but the next one is the International. We’re fortunate here in Houston to live near such a good show.
But it’s overwhelming. You have to be able to pace yourself. You can see some little thing and then you think, ‘Oh, how many years did it take that person to do that?’ And it does take years sometimes for some of these quilts these people turn out. I’m not competitive enough to it. I do it for pleasure. If it frustrates me then it’s not fun and it’s a happy time. Do I like to challenge myself? Every couple of years I do a really highly-technical quilt just so that I don’t lose skills. But I don’t know if I will do another technical quilt because I’m having too much fun playing [laughter.]. I’ve done technical quilts, I can do them. I’ve done them and if I have to I can do them again. But I don’t have to. I can do what I want.
CS: That’s nice. I like to hear that.
DW: One of the best quotes I ever heard about quilts was a lady who came to our guild not too long ago; I wish I could remember which speaker it was, but her whole thing was to use your quilts. I think it was Diane Gyleen, actually who said it. She said, ‘And then one day they finally had the sense and took that quilt on a picnic.’ And that’s the fun of a quilt. You take it and you use it. As I’m teaching new quilters I always tell them it’s only fabric. It’s temporary; it’s not going to last forever. Use it, enjoy it, don’t put it in a box and not use it. Put it out, let your kids cover up with it. When my grandkids come over and the weather’s too hot to play outside or whatever, we build tents with all the quilts in the house, and we cover the dining room table and we play under the quilts. That’s what it should be. I’ve got to touch it; I’m not going to be here forever. I do have a couple I’ll probably put in the coffin with me [laughter.] just because they were hard to make. I have one I call my shroud [laughter.]. People laugh at me, ‘You think I’m kidding, don’t you?’ It’s temporary. That’s the thing. Yeah, we like something to last and think they’re going to be in a museum forever and all this. It’s not going to happen. Maybe to one person or 1% of all the quilts ever created, but let’s use them up. Like, I’ve had relatives pass on and you go into their linen closets and you find all these beautiful linens they never used. They were saving them. I want to know what they were saving them for because by the time anybody else got them the creases were in there permanently and you were never going to get them out [laughter].
CS: I would like to thank you for allowing me to interview you today Ms. Deborah Woolley.
DW: Thank you.
CS: And as a part of Quilters Save Our Stories Project. You can look for this to be on our website when depending on how long it takes me to transcribe this and stop laughing in all these places.
We concluded our interview at 3:36 in the afternoon.
Interviewee: Deborah Wooley
Interviewer: Cathey Spies
Transcriber: Cathey Spies
Project Name: The Texas QSOS
Location: Cypress, TX
Time: 3:00 p.m.
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