Brenda Horton (BH): My name is Brenda Horton. Today’s date is October 22nd. And I’m conducting an interview with Eleanor Burns for the quilt oral history project in Houston, Texas. Eleanor would you tell me about the quilt you brought today?
Eleanor Burns (EB): Well, actually I brought two quilts. The quilt that I brought was called “English Garden” and it was designed by Ruby McKim probably in the 1930’s. It’s not that great of a quilt. I actually bought it at a street fair in California, in a town called Julian; it’s an old mining town. And I love this quilt because I admire Ruby McKim so much I brought pieces I’ve collected from Ruby McKim. She was an art deco quilter and she was one of the first to say ‘I think that ladies should really do this by machine.’ I go, ‘Alright Ruby,’ this is my kind of lady. When she did the flowers, she did these straight zippy lines so that a woman could actually make this, if they really didn’t want to do the needle turn appliqué, or they couldn’t get their points right, they could go ahead and do this type of technique. So she did just a simple setting in red lines, it’s not really fancy. Somebody loved this quilt and used it. But, I have admired Ruby so much that I actually bought her book as my first book. That’s my book and I bought all these things. Just in case you never saw Ruby McKim this is her picture. [flipping pages of book.] Where is it? There she is, that’s Ruby McKim. A lot of people think that she wrote all the newspaper articles for the Kansas City Star, but she really only wrote for two years. She and her husband had a studio. Okay, this is the first book I ever got and it was a dollar, ninety-nine cents. It was on the discount table. I snatched it up. I had no idea what I was going to do with it but, she influenced my whole life and that’s why I had to bring it. Now she had a studio in Independence, Missouri with her husband. I felt so fortunate, One cent to mail this catalog. This is one of her original catalogs that I have here. Some child got a hold of it and scribbled over it, but it’s in pristine condition. This is actually where the original patterns came from. This is the original. Everywhere I go, I look for things from Ruby McKim. And I found that block–let’s see if I can find that. This block is the same as the quilt I found in my hometown Zelienople English Flower Garden. The poor lady did all the needle turn and got all her zippy little lines on her flowers but she abandoned it with her needle still attached. So, I just truly love it. As I’m going through this book and I find this page, see how she was showing how to piece flowers together using the machine quilting. This one is her poppy, I’m so fortunate because I found attached to this–this is such a kick–this is instruction from Ruby McKim and someone actually started coloring it in. Maybe she didn’t know what the quilt looked like. She clipped this from a newspaper identified as “Quilt Stolen” and I go, ‘Oh sounds interesting.’ Anyhow this is part of my collection from Ruby McKim. In this book, it shows the beautiful tulip quilt. It just says that it’s simple to do and it’s attractive in yellow, orange and green. It’s set together like a diamond paned window. Well, I looked at that and said, ‘Ruby, I can do this by strips,’ and that’s what I set out to do. Looking at hers of course she did not have the pattern included, just this black and white drawing. And so I took Ruby’s tulip pattern and turned it into my own design. Here we have the “Easy Strip Tulip,” with the diamond pane setting. What’s really fun about it is you can do a quilt like this; I mean my company name is Quilt in a Day. You can piece this top in a day, because it’s all straight lines. If you have just a long selvage to selvage strip, you can do a whole row of tulips all the same color. I just felt that since Ruby influenced my life so greatly, when I did this book called “Easy Strip Tulips.” I dedicated it to Ruby McKim. Here is her picture. I did a photograph of her catalog and just a little bit about her. This is not a real large book, I could have dedicated more time to her life and her study, which I just thoroughly enjoy reading about. That was the significance of the quilt I brought today. [laughs.] That was a whole presentation. [laughs.]
BH: Yes it was. That was wonderful and I see by the way you have done this that you are one of our quilt historians.
EB: I am a quilt historian.
BH: Would you tell me more about how you feel about studying quilt history?
EB: Well, I personally prefer the traditional look in quilts, and so I study the antique quilts and I study the women that made them. I just finished a program for my PBS series, it’s a fund-raiser called “Women Who Taught us to Sew”. I started out with Marie Webster who is considered the mother of quilting, because she wrote America’s first quilting book. I just went from there and continued adding Ruth Finley, who wrote America’s second quilting book. Actually there are two quilts in this show that reference Ruth Finley’s book. Her book came out, I think, in 1928. They actually say they looked at the photographs in her book and recreated it. But, that’s what I’ve done. And then there was Anne Orr who worked for Better Homes and Gardens. It’s interesting because all of these women were entrepreneurs in their own right most in the depression years. History didn’t necessarily say that these women had to support their families. I found that I admire them so greatly because I took the quilting and I’ve used it to support my children. I raised my two sons alone, and it was the quilting that did it for me. It makes me weepy when I think about that. But, anyhow, my children were very young, 2 and 5, when I wrote my first book, which was “Make a Quilt in a Day: Log Cabin Pattern.” My children had to go to quilt shows and we could only afford a table. They would have to sell the books for me – just little guys – and take the change. They just learned how to work along with me. And now my oldest son, Grant, is an entrepreneur in his own right. He’s actually–
BH: That’s him, there?
EB: No, my oldest son is an entrepreneur. He has his own business manufacturing skateboards. Orion has stuck with me since he was two years old. He’s now directing my video series. They have such a love for the women and the quilts. They won’t let me sell anything. They say, ‘This is my inheritance, Mom, you can’t sell that quilt.’ Sometimes you have to clear out, because I make so many quilts. In a year, if you asked me how many quilts I’ve made, I can’t even tell you. But I know when I was doing the tulip book, which was my latest, I made six or eight quilts just to test my method, test my yardage. Just to make sure I have the best technique down on paper for students to follow. I follow my own instructions and just constantly rewrite and check and correct. So I get my influence from the women from the early 1900’s up to the 1940’s following Carrie Hall who was one of our historians from the 40’s.
BH: And you did the whole series for PBS, which was wonderful.
EB: Yes, I also did a star quilt. It was called “Stars Across America,” some of the stars were unidentified in Barbara Brackman’s book or anywhere. We just really created stars for technique. And since I couldn’t identify them, I associated them with woman in history– a woman who fought for suffrage for us. There were two black women– Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. I made a star for Eleanor Roosevelt, because I do admire her. I took Harriet Beecher Stowe–just women who were very brave and who stood out in our country and did something special for us.
BH: Well it seems that you have helped to create different things to remember these ladies by and what would you like to be remembered for or as?
EB: Well, this is what happened this show. Because I’ve dedicated my life to writing books and good yardage charts, I always think about other women and the businesses they’ve started owning their quilt shops and selling fabric. I started as a teacher. I was a special ed. teacher. I taught special ed. before I had my children. I truly love to teach. So I have the business sense, the teaching sense, I was just awarded at Quilt Market the highest award Market gives called the Michael Kile Award And for me it was an honor, I really wanted to win that award but I felt that I’m really not political. I keep to myself and do my own thing and so to have the advisory council award that to me I was just ‘hoppin’ on air’ and I still feel that I am. That just happened this year, so I ‘m truly excited that this being the last Market of the century, the greatest show on earth this year, to receive the Michael Kile Award, there’s no greater thing.
BH: That’s wonderful, wonderful. How has your family… I realize you have two sons, and they are a part of your business. How have they influenced you in your work?
EB: Probably when they were so little it was very important to me to have the speed. Since I raised them when they were very young, I had to be a mother and a father and the breadwinner. So the speed in the Log Cabin, the speed in the Irish Chain, all of the traditional looks in the first books that I wrote, and the Amish quilt. They’ve always been there. But you see, not only have my two sons been with me in this business, I have two sisters who have also grown up with me in the quilting. My sister, Judy, moved from Pennsylvania to California to help me care for the boys when I was just starting out, because I traveled a lot and knocked on a lot of doors. My sister came and she started shipping my books all around the country and all around the world. She came on a round-trip ticket and never went home. She said she’s been with the company for eighteen years. And so when we go to work my sister is there, she’s always in the building. She’s the youngest sister and then my middle sister, Patty, also joined me. We call her the sister company because her husband and she manufacture the rulers. She came from Georgia, as an art teacher, not very happy and really looking for a place also. She was very depressed. She got into making quilts with me and now she loves the colors and the fabric. She and I are very different in that she is very fussy. I can sew a quilt as much as she unsews the same quilt. When we work together, she makes me work until I have the exact perfect colors. She and I just co-authored “Grandmother’s Garden Quilt,” which was a collection of patterns from what probably appeared in 1928 as part of the Nancy Page Club that was written by Florence LaGanke. We were given the patterns at a camp retreat. This woman just said, ‘Here, I found this notebook at a garage sale, I think you could use it.’ And we took this collection of patterns and turned them into an absolutely fantastic quilt. It was Patty who did all the fussy handwork. I was the engineer and did all of the machine assembly and laid out the book and made it actually workable for everyone. So there are two sisters that work with me besides my two sons at Quilt in a Day. I actually built the company from just my sister Judy, who shipped books from my garage. We took over three bedrooms in my four bedroom house and we no longer had room to live. We moved into a warehouse just five minutes from home, because I knew that I would need to get home to the boys if there was an accident. There were many broken bones and cuts that I had to barrel up that hill. But, in 1983 I rented a warehouse near my home that I didn’t know how I was going to pay for, but I put a couple of boxes of books in it and I struggled to pay the rent. In 1999 my family and I purchased the building. It’s 20,000 square feet. It’s a big, big building; there’s three units in it. We went from the one unit and cut a door and moved into the second unit and cut a door and moved into the third unit. So now Quilt in a Day is actually in two and half of the units and my son Grant is in the third unit with his skateboard business so when we come together every day the grand puppies come, the sons come, the sisters come and about forty other people come to work at Quilt in a Day.
BH: Oh, my. Tell us about PBS.
EB: Well, I’ve been on public television for 11 years, which just truly amazes me. I started out traveling first…I knew that I was getting tired traveling and teaching, but yet I wanted everyone to know my methods. So I had a good friend who said, ‘El, we could probably get you on TV.’ And I said, ‘Okay, that’s what we’ll do.’ We bought an upscale consumer camera and we started going out to the classes I was teaching. He would videotape me and we would edit it, and we would say, ‘No, that’s not good.’ Then we would do it again and look at it. ‘No, that’s not good,’ and just try to improve because I was just a teacher, not ever a hostess on a television series. Finally we felt that we had something good enough to submit to the Learning Channel. The Learning Channel was the first to accept my programs. They put me on three times a week and my business tripled overnight. I was completely unprepared for the success of going on the air, we just had one little camera and a studio. We put in sound proofing in part of the warehouse. When The Learning Channel bought my program, we had to buy an upgraded camera and make these investments in equipment. I decided to do that myself. I’m just a single woman. But through the years we ended up putting together a professional broadcast studio. After The Learning Channel accepted me, I went on PBS. It was Nebraska that got me on public television because they did a letter writing campaign to their PBS station. I think they had 3,000 signatures. The program director called and said, ‘We have to have you, what are you anyway?’ So from that point on each of the PBS stations have picked me up. I’m on at different times on 150 different stations throughout the country. They share my time with the other quilters–with Kay Wood and Fans and Porter and the other sewing programs and Nancy. We all share this time slot. We use a satellite system–every Sunday we uplink a free program. I don’t tape a new show for every week. I may do twenty new programs a year but the up linking station says, ‘You’ve got to do a new program for us. You have to do a new series. Everybody out there wants their ‘El kick’–that’s what they call it.’ Their El kick, ‘Okay, I’ll do a new program.’ I get many children that think that my program is for them. The women come to me and whisper, ‘My husband watches your show, and you’re the only program he’ll watch.’ They all just think it’s funny that I throw my fabric. One man, I believe he’s a fireman, said that if he’s depressed, he just turns on my show because he knows that I’ll be smiling and he’ll feel more cheerful when it’s over. My cousin works in a veteran’s hospital in New York and one day she was walking down the hall and she heard my voice. She said, ‘My cousin came to surprise me,’ and she started running down the halls trying to find me. She ran into one of the men’s rooms and he had my program on. He said, ‘Yeah, I always watch her. She makes me feel good.’ The program is a lot of work, it is edited down to be only 26 minutes, but all in all, it probably takes us about a week to put it together. I write my own scripts. I do a lot of my own preparation for the quilt that I’m going to be teaching ahead of time. Just the research alone to find something special and I try to find as much significant information about the quilt or the quilt maker that I can. And the audience tells me that that is what they really like, because they want to know history too. So it is a challenge. People walk by me and say, ‘Don’t ever quit.’ And I think, ‘Oh I’m getting old.’ [laughs.]
BH: Well, that’s what people tell good doctors, they won’t let them retire, so you’re Dr. Smiles maybe. [laughter.] That was my next question. How do you feel that–you have mentioned that you always have a smile and people like to watch you, how do you feel about people’s reaction to you?
EB: It’s a little embarrassing whenever women really fuss over me. It’s actually very embarrassing. But, I like to hear their stories and sometimes they bring tears to my eyes. I had a recovering alcoholic who brought her son to me and said that it had changed her life. That is very heart rendering to me. And that happens over and over again to me. People may have a death in the family; the quilting pulled them through the last year. And maybe a mother with children quilts, that’s really fun too. I thought you were going to ask me if I wanted to retire.
BH: Well, do you want to retire?
EB: Well, this is what I want to do. I want to find a large house, a retreat in the mountains, something with a barn. I’d like to start teaching classes and doing lectures in my barn. Have people come there and make it very special. I like to fuss over people and put out my best china and set the table and do flower arrangements. And things like that. I would like to do retreats like that, maybe not for ten years. I’m 54 now and we all have to think when we see Doreen Speckman pass away so untimely, we just don’t know. My kids think about ‘What’s mom going to do when she retires?’ I enjoy things like that. I am the one in the family that my home is the one where we all hang out at Christmas. I might have 14 at my dinner table, sometimes for two weeks in a row. It’s just really fun. I like to plan events for just my sons and their friends. They call me “Mrs. Burns” or “Mom” or whatever, it’s just really funny when they all come to my house and they have such a good time.
BH: Maybe it’s not really funny that they do that, maybe that’s the most natural thing.
EB: I really enjoy it. I get excited. They can count on me to make a special dinner for them.
BH: You make people feel good, don’t you? I mean that’s the feeling I get, because they wouldn’t gravitate to your house otherwise. That speaks so well of you. The materials you used in your tulip quilt here, I noticed you have all cottons, which is kind of a standard. Do you ever work any other materials besides cotton?
EB: No. I like to use wool batting and I’ve used wool strips for hooking, but usually in my quilts I use my own fabric. Actually some of the pieces in here are from a line of fabric that I did with Benertex. This is from the line called “Anniversary Florals.”
BH: Your blouse.
EB: Yes. Last year was my twentieth year and so Benartex really honored me by doing a line “Anniversary Florals”. This purple is one, this green is one and there’s quite a few pieces in “Grandmother’s Garden” we did. We designed the fabric, my sister Patty and I did it–the fussy one–helped me out and Benartex came out with a really pretty line. We’re working on a second line as well.
BH: Now you called your sister the fussy one but you “fussy cut” sometimes on your patterns, is that where you got the term?
EB: Yes, she told me “fussy cut.” What’s really interesting, we may have coined the word “fussy-cut” but now it’s a standard in the industry. And that’s really fun to see something you started as just common terminology.
MF: Explain to us what “fussy-cut” is.
EB: Fussy-cut means you would have a large floral design with a lot of flowers. You might just specially cut out one flower and use that one flower repeat throughout your quilt, so it’s just specially cut out of the fabric to use in a certain piece. It puts together a really pretty design– fussy.
BH: What are your plans–you briefly mentioned something you are working on now. Let’s go back to your latest project.
EB: Right now I am working on a quilt called “Town Square Sampler.” I have a full art department and what we are doing is–we actually took blocks from Barbara Backman’s book and from other people’s books. We pulled out blocks that we thought would be fun to sew and also some with new techniques that we could include. We pulled out the blocks and then we just generated them on the computer and designed this quilt. Going from simple strips, to triangle pieced squares, to a really fun technique of a triangle in a little corner block and then a triangle in a square in appliqué. We’ve put in together into this whole large quilt with Main Street across the center and angels which is our appliqué row flying across the top. But, my concept was always thinking about the shop owners and how they would teach and sell fabric. My concept was to put it into rows. There’s a lot of row quilts going on now but I’m disappointed when I look at other people’s patterns, because I don’t think they give enough information and they are very expensive. Mine will be all in one book with very detailed instructions. The shop owner can use it either for an eight week or eight month series, each time starting out with the beginner strip and building technique until they have a whole quilt put together. It’s called the “Town Square Sampler.” I do all the writing myself, work out all the measurements and the yardage, my art department illustrates it. We hand it out to testers so we make sure it’s correct. We teach classes on it. I’m starting a series on it when I go back. And since it’s called “Town Square Sampler” I’m going to be pulling parts from my hometown and just visiting some different towns that fit in with the story line. We’re preparing the series for PBS and it will be going out in February. So, I work long days. I start at six in the morning and maybe quit at ten at night. But I sleep really well.
MF: May ask one question?
MF: What do you think about the importance of quilts for women in American life? Over time too.
EB: I think the importance of quilts. I see quilt making as a confidence builder for women. I think that is why I work like I do. I want to build confidence in them. I want to give them something that they love, they excite for, they lust for, they get up every morning for and cannot wait to do, to fill void time, may be empty time. It’s so satisfying to touch a piece of fabric. It’s exciting to work with different colors. I think that if they can feel that pride in themselves, they can bring that to their families and their family is also proud of them. It’s unbelievable what it creates.
BH: What do you think makes a great quilt?
EB: [laughs.] Something based on tradition. [laughter.] Tradition.
BH: What makes a great quilter?
EB: A great quilter? I don’t expect a great quilter to have a perfect seam. I expect them to really have enjoyed what they did. When I’m teaching a person who thinks things don’t match, I talk with them quietly and I go over it. I’ll ask them if they like it and it’s acceptable to them, and some women will say, ‘I did the best that I could do, and I am really impressed. I know it’s not perfect, but I am so excited that I did that.’ I just let imperfection pass and go. They all learn. They have to make their first quilt. That’s who I am. I’m here to teach people to make their first quilt, get them started, they can go on. They can become great. There are two ladies at Market that started out in my company who have opened their own shops. Just this Market there are so many other people who took my classes first and they tell me that. Sometimes they sort of whisper it to me. But I got them started. They just have to do one quilt and then they can go on and do great things.
BH: What do you think makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection?
EB: Probably the ones that I marvel at are the ones that have intricate piecing, decorative hand-stitching on the top. Tiny stitches and a lot of quilting lines, close quilting lines and the quality of the fabric and it’s still in pristine condition.
BH: I notice you talk about the process and some people work because they enjoy the process and some people work because they want the finished product. How would you classify yourself – as a process or product oriented person?
EB: Process, definitely, I’m the engineer. People say interesting things to me, they say, ‘You brought to quilting what Julia Childs brought to cooking, and that’s showmanship,’ or perhaps I brought to quilting what Liberace brought to music. It’s showmanship. But it’s the appreciation of what we do to.
BH: I think we have a few more minutes. I’d like to know how when you design… I know some people enjoy the pattern, some people enjoy the color, and some people enjoy texture. When you design, how do you go at that?
EB: You know sometimes I just go into my quilt shop and ask the ladies to put a kit together for me. Because it is always the technique that I am most interested in. I know that we’ll get the colors right. I may not make the most beautiful quilt, but I want to be able to tell them how to get the correct measurements and how to go about it correctly. And then my students, my staff, somebody else comes up with an absolutely fantastic quilt. It’s just really important to me that I sit and sew over and over again until I have it down to a science. It’s like manufacturing you know, that I teach [laughs.] I’m the assembly line.
BH: Well we appreciate it. Thank you, Eleanor for giving us your time to become a part of the [Quilters’.] S.O.S. [-Save Our Stories.] project.
EB: You’re welcome.
BH: We’re ending the interview at 9:55. Eleanor Burns, I’m Brenda Horton. Thank you very much.
Eleanor Burns, Interviewee
Brenda Horton, Interviewer
Karen Musgrave, Transcriber
The International Quilt Festival QSOS
October 22, 1999
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.
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