Note: This interview was done as part of a Quilters’ S.O.S. – Save Our Stories training that took place during The Quilters Hall of Fame’s “Celebrations 2007.”
Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I am in Marion, Indiana with Gwen Marston doing a
Quilters’ S.O.S. – Save Our Stories interview. It is July 21, 2007 and it is 10:18 in the morning. Thank you, Gwen, for agreeing to do this interview with me.
Gwen Marston (GM): You are very welcome.
KM: Tell me about the quilt that you brought for the interview.
GM: This is just the last one I finished, and so it didn’t have a binding on it and I am on a road trip so I never leave home without something to sew, so this is a little basket quilt that I made specifically for my quilt retreat that is now in its twenty-fourth year. Every year I have a different theme, and this year it is basket quilts, so I have been keeping very busy making both traditional basket quilts and liberated basket quilts. This is one that just got finished.
KM: Is this a traditional or a liberated?
GM: It’s very traditional. It is a traditional pattern and a traditional setting and it is furthermore the color idea is taken from an antique quilt. Someone sent me a little card and I could see about six blocks of a full size quilts. It was made in the thirties, so I could just see that it was thirties prints and the backgrounds were kind of thirties solids, but it didn’t seem from what I could see that there was any particular order, so I just got out those fabrics and kind of worked my way through it. I have to say, first I made the red ones and then I got into the yellow ones and I was laying them out and I noticed in the original quilt there were blocks with white background. I thought that is going to look kind of jarring against the ones with the color, but I bravely forged ahead and made a few with the white ones and it worked out great. So that is pretty much the way I work. When I’m working in a traditional style I look at antique quilts. Even though the one that I was working with, working from that little picture, it was a basket quilt but not this particular block so I changed the block and I used that idea of having the prints for the baskets and using five I think, four or five solids from that same period to do the background.
KM: Did you machine quilt this?
GM: No I did not. That is one thing, I wash windows but I do not lift my feed dogs. So if I have something machine quilted I don’t do, I send it out. This was quilted by a girl who comes to my retreat named Robyn House. She is a northern Michigan quilter and does my machine work.
KM: Do you give her any instruction as to how you want it quilted?
GM: Yes I do. I wanted this in a real traditional quilting style and cross hatching.
KM: That is in the middle.
GM: Feathers on the border.
KM: Nice feathers.
GM: She is very good, yes she is. That is my little thirties basket and most recent piece.
KM: Tell me about your liberated quiltmaking.
GM: That started in ’91, and I was, I have always taken my clues for my quiltmaking from studying antique quilts. I started out with a bunch of Mennonite women as my first teachers who got me going, kind of taught me the basics. Then I kind of fell into the arms of Mary Shafer, so my roots are very traditional, but I noticed from looking at very traditional quilts that they broke all the rules that people had made kind of since then in the last twenty years. We have a lot of brand new rules now in quiltmaking, and I noticed that the antique ones, they seem to have a lot more freedom and they were doing all kinds of things that wouldn’t be the judges wouldn’t care for today and so there was so much of that, I started kind of trying to use those ideas because I like the look of antique quilts. If I’m going to make a traditional quilt, I would like it to look like one. I noticed that in my study of old quilts that you would see blocks that were, they were kind of like cotton crazies, they were these little kind of compositions made of scrapes. One day I was making those out of little pieces of fabric that were next to me at the sewing machine, just kind of sewing them together to see how they would come out, and I sewed a triangle on that was floating out there on my desk and I sewed it onto this little kind of mismatched block and it looked like a house and it was like look at that, if I try a little bit I can make house blocks without templates. It was very exciting because if you have ever have made a house block that it looks very simple but there are nine million parts and there is a right and a left and you can’t get mixed up on that. I stayed up until about 2:00 in the morning experimenting with this new little thing I happened onto and then after that, it was like, when that happened it was like the doors opened, light shone and the music came up and it was like I had stepped into a whole new world of quiltmaking and a whole big room full of other possibilities. Once I got onto that, if I could make houses for heaven sakes with no templates and no pattern, just kind of starting in, I wonder what else I could make. I started playing around with that idea and I think I did “Liberated Quiltmaking” with AQS [American Quilter’s Society.] in maybe ’95 after I had been at it and teaching it for a while. I work now in two ways. I still love making traditional patterns in traditional ways, but I also like the more free form liberated work, which is a great way to make original quilts without really even trying. You can make quilts that are so original you can’t copy yourself. That is another kind of way that I work. For the quilt retreat this year, I think I made thirteen, maybe twelve traditional quilts in different styles and periods and then I have probably seven liberated baskets that are, the points don’t match, they are very free form, and usually they are made in brighter contemporary colors so they are kind of more in the kind of quilt art world you could say I guess. That is how I work. By the way, yesterday, can I talk to you about basket quilts?
KM: Of course.
GM: Yesterday word had it that Pat Holly said that she found two antique basket tops at the school, or wherever it is that they are having, where they had stuff for sale, and she described them to me and said they were really cute but they won’t take a credit card so she couldn’t get them, so I said I would go and look at them but I didn’t have a check either. I went with Rosaline and I found the quilts and I said, she knew who I was so I thought that might help, but it didn’t. [laughs.] I said, ‘Okay you don’t take credit cards?’ no she doesn’t so I went and got Rosaline and said I want to buy these two tops. I’m willing to beg, I’m going to get the money before I leave and I’m taking the quilts with me. [laughs.] So I say to her, ‘Listen I have these two tops and I really want to buy them, do you think there is anyway you could spot me, could you write a check and I will send you the money as soon as I get home.’ She said, ‘Yes she would.’ So the way it worked out was that there was the person selling the quilts on one side of the table and Rosaline and I were on the other, so Rosaline was writing the check while the shop owner was writing the receipt for me, while I was writing my Visa number for Rosaline because she said if I gave her the Visa number she will run it through hers, so it was this little round robin of I will pay you and you give me and I will pay you. I got the quilt tops and Pat Holly was kind of surprised. [laughs.] I know why I wanted to tell you that story, because one of the old tops I bought was in red and cheddar on a white background with alternate white blocks, and the little handles were cheddar and they were top stitched with white thread on the sewing machine, and the owner said to me, ‘Well I’ll tell you if I wasn’t going to sell this quilt pretty quickly I was going to take those handles off and hand appliqué them, because that just drives me crazy.’ And I said, ‘You know a lot of basket quilts, the handles on antique basket quilts are actually appliquéd by machine, this other top I’m buying from you is also done that way, you just didn’t notice it because the thread matches better.’ Anyway, my whole thing is because I have this background in traditional work I like traditional quilts and I’m not going to change them. The idea when I see basket handles on an antique quilt that are top stitched on machine, I think all right, good idea I think I will do that too. There is something very interesting to me about what has been going on in the quilt world since I kind of got into it thirty years ago, and it is that while people really like traditional quilts, they love antique quilts, most people get into quiltmaking because of that, they don’t make quilts that look like antique quilts. You start out–I did, I started out totally as a traditional quiltmaker and then after thirty years, you kind of find other ways of working as well. It is interesting to me that while people love antique quilts, they don’t make quilts that look like that. When I do classes and talk to people about that, one of the things is say is ‘Look you guys, when you go through Quilters’ Newsletter Magazine, even without your glasses on, can’t you tell that is a new one and that is an old one?’ They say yes, yes, and so now I have done a few lectures where I start out by saying, ‘How many of you like antique quilts?’ Up go the hands, and I say, ‘I wonder why we don’t make them look that way anymore then, because we pretty much eradicated a lot of things like that, we have decided that we can no longer top stitch the basket handles, that wouldn’t be appropriate, and a lot of other things that are found in appliqué quilts that have been kind of eradicated.’ You know the dog tooth border? Is it okay if I just keep rambling here now that I’m on a role, because guess what, I like to talk about quilts. [laughs.]
GM: That is one thing I do.
KM: I am so surprised. [laughs.]
GM: As long as I’m on my pet peeve now, the dog tooth border is, the saw tooth looking border that is appliquéd and cut from whole clothe, and if you look at pictures of early quilts, Colonial era quilts where that was used more than it is now, you can tell from a little photograph 2 X 3″ if it is a dog tooth border appliqué or whether it is a pieced saw tooth border. The reason you can tell is because they were, the original way that they were made was from folded fabric and when you fold fabric and cut fabric you get inconsistencies. They are not even, and when you needle turn them, that is called needle turn not toothpick turn by the way, when you needle turn the edges under they are on the bias so they automatically curve a little bit, so that the distinctive characteristics of the saw tooth border are that they are inconsistently lopping along there and that they are curved, so they are just kind of almost scallopy looking. Nowadays, we have invented–the way it is taught now, it that you come up with a system where we eradicate those two characteristics that made it cute in the first place and charming and distinctive. Now the way it is taught is that you measure equal distant very carefully, god forbid that they shouldn’t be precise, and then you fold the edges in, which means you get rid of that little bow in the sides. It is like, well that is no fun, now you have taken the very things that characterize it artistically away from it. I’m kind of just hanging on, I like those old ideas and I think often times in antique quilts–when there weren’t quilt teachers around and magazines telling us the right way to do things, everybody was home on the ranch figuring it out for themselves and therefore, I think there was a lot more innovation often times on those earlier quilts. Also, I don’t think we have to reinvent the wheel. I like the tradition, I think it is a good thing and I like the idea of people figuring things out for themselves and it isn’t rocket science. When I started with the Mennonites and Mary Shafer, they were making quilts out of their sewing basket. There weren’t any quilt shops and there weren’t any quilters’ rulers and there were any leather thimbles, there was only one thimble and you had your little sewing basket and away you went. It has just gotten more complicated. Quilting now kind of reminds me of what is it Carbellas I think or something, there is some big sporting goods stores, kind of chain stores around the country now and they are huge stores and they are for hunting and fishing, and I was so shocked when I went in there because on Beaver Island the way they go hunting is that they get their gun, make sure it is already to go, and they get some kind of dull brown clothes on and they go hide behind a bush and wait for something to come by. Nowadays, there is scent, there are outfits, I have no idea what all, but this was a huge store full of things to help you go put venison on the table. The same thing has kind of happened in quilting. You used to be able to do it with granny’s apron and little Suzy’s dress that she has outgrown, and scissors and needles, and now it has become this really complicated kind of commercial world.
KM: Do you think it will stay that way?
GM: Yes I do.
KM: You think this is bad?
GM: No I don’t think it is bad, but I don’t think it is good either. I don’t like to be critical because I’m happy when people are making quilts. I just think we need to remind ourselves, someone needs to say you can make a quilt without a design wall and to say all of those appliqué quilts in the museum that we can’t afford to buy were made before there was freezer paper. It just seems like it has gotten–a lot of the techniques I think are directed towards ever more precision as though that was some god that we were suppose to worship, and I don’t think Picasso was losing sleep worrying about staying inside the lines. Staying inside the lines does not equal fine art. I also what I think is missing is that it becomes almost a political thing for me, because in the early days women couldn’t vote, you couldn’t own property, you really, you couldn’t do very many things, but boy oh boy you owned your quilting. You could do your quilting. I kind of don’t like to see women give it over to the professionals and feel like they can’t make a quilt unless they buy a pattern and that they need to buy professional templates, because we couldn’t do that that would be way to hard. I guess because of my traditional background and because of the Mennonites and because of Mary Shafer I feel like John and the Baptist out there saying, ‘Oh no you can do it by yourself. Oh it is very easy.’ I think in some ways we’ve kind of gotten off track. My focus when I’m out in the world teaching quiltmaking is to show people easy ways to take control of it themselves.
KM: Tell me about your retreat.
GM: Next year is my 25th year of doing this and I did the first one on Beaver Island and I did only one session and everybody came on the ferry which is a 33 mile out in the middle of the lake is where I live, 33 miles out in the middle of Lake Michigan, and I remind people they don’t call them the Great Lakes for nothing. These are really big lakes. The day they came it was very rough and everyone but one person threw up. [laughs.] When I went down to pick them up there they were looking rather forlorn on the dock and I thought well this is the first and last Beaver Island quilt retreat. The next year I did two sessions, and the second one had just enough to pay the bills, but it has kind of grown. Now I have been doing it for, this is my 24th year and I do four sessions. People come in on Tuesday and go home on Sunday morning. There is a full day on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and I rent a lodge. I do it now in Elk Rapids, Michigan. I lost my place I had it on the island so now I do it in Elk Rapids, which is a darling little northern Michigan town and I have a lodge that is one hundred years old that I rent and every year I choice a different topic. I have done medallions and stripy quilts, and last year we did the parts department, which is from a book Freddy Moran and I did “Collaborative Quilting” and it had just come out so we did kind of ideas from that book. This year I’m doing basket quilts. I see my job there doing the quilt retreat as getting the lesson together. I work on it all year long because I have really good quilters who come. It is not like I can waltz in there and pretend like I know about baskets. I try to have something for everyone because I don’t have a class project that everybody does. My way of operating has always been to offer a lot of things and then let people choose and then I’m there to help if they get stuck. We do little demonstrations. If someone wants to know how to do something I just announce it to the whole class that this is what we are doing over here if you would like to watch. There is a lot of learning that is going on, but everybody is doing their own work. I try to have something for everybody; so I have stuff for the traditional quiltmakers and I have quilts for people who want to do more contemporary kind of work. By the time that the retreat rolls around every single year I’m beside myself with excitement, because after a year of making baskets I think why would anyone make anything else? My gosh, basket quilts are the greatest. Anyway, I have done it for a long time now and I think it has helped me to grow as a quiltmaker too because I have to work hard all year long. I put together a notebook every year as an extra resource for people and it has actually only pictures of traditional quilts. For the art quilts, you got to figure that out yourself in my estimation with examples of mine. Teaching art quilts is an interesting concept to me, because I don’t want to teach you how to make my art quilt, I want to give you the tools and kind of give you an idea of how the process works so you can make your own quilts, that is what we do there.
KM: How many hours do you spend quiltmaking each day?
GM: That is all I do. It is not like I get up at 6:00 and head directly for the frame and stay there until after dinner, but that is my whole gig. I’m working on some aspect of it. I have written books and articles also and because of the quilt retreat I’m busy doing that and I’m taking care of my correspondence and I’m an old fashion girl so I’m not online so I write notes to people and I actually go to the post office, so I’m kind of at it all day long. In the summer time, which is a wonderful time for me on Beaver Island because I like to be outside too, so that is really good, because then I am up at 6:00. I work on my quilts until I get tired and my mind wonders outside while I’m working at the frame and I think oh I’m tired of this, it would be great to be outside. I run outside until I start getting sweaty or itchy or the black flies or mosquitoes find me and then I begin to think how nice and cool and restful it is at the quilt frame and then I run in and quilt some more. My kind of work philosophy is that if I allow myself to do whatever I feel like doing, I get a lot more work done. I then stay at it constantly. I take work with me on the road, that is why I have this quilt, because it was done accept for the binding.
KM: The binding is now done.
GM: The binding is now done. I have done two bindings. I have a little motto which is, never leave home without your appliqué. I always have appliqué with me and I have done four block appliqué quilts on the road where I didn’t sew a stitch at home, they were my little sample blocks. I take along one to teach needle turning and to teach my classes and a year later it is like they are all done. That kind of helps me keep going. There is something also while thinking about my work and how much time I spend on it, there is a couple of factors. One is that I have never ever in all these years have gotten tired of making quilts, I really love, I love sewing, I love sewing at the sewing machine, I like handwork, I just like the whole thing. That keeps me going and the other part of it is that when you support yourself and you are the sole supporter that is a good reason to get up in the morning. I used to tell my dog that obviously he wasn’t buying the dog food, so somebody has to go out and get the dog food and bring that home, so that is me.
KM: Why don’t we take the opportunity before the tape runs out to have, since this is a demonstration interview, to have the participants have an opportunity to ask you a question? Does anyone want to ask a question? Tell me your name so it is on the tape.
Dale Drake (DD): My name is Dale Drake. When did you get started?
GM: When I was little. I am little Miss Suzy Homemaker. I always liked to sew. I had four kids in my family and I was always the one making the cookies. When I went to college I was a Home Ec major so I was–I can tell you all about 7th grade home ec sewing. How I learned making the V neck shift. That is where I learned the inside curve; you have to clip it to make it turn. I remember my sewing teacher in 7th grade saying it is always best to use thread that matches the content of the fabric, so in appliqué I use cotton thread and not silk thread. Little things like that. It just got worse as I got older.
KM: What is your first memory of a quilt?
GM: I grew up in a family where there weren’t any quilts, and so my first memory of a quilt is as an adult I started seeing them at antique stores. I collected antique furniture so I would see them there. I bought a pink and white pinwheel for my daughter’s bed. I didn’t know too much about it, but if you are a needle woman, it is like wow, somebody really went for it. When I was little my grandmother gave me a little butterfly quilt that was button hole stitched and I don’t even remember getting that except that I was young. The wonderful thing about it is that all of my life experiences in moving around and everything I kept that quilt. I think it was because my grandmother made it by hand and even as a young kid I don’t remember getting it, I don’t remember particularly valuing it or any big deal, but boy do I love it now. If you would like to see a picture of that, I think it is in Sue Nichols’ first book. She used it as an example of hand buttonhole stitch.
Ann Calland (AC) This is Ann Calland from Marion, Indiana. What do you feel is our intention with quilting? What is it about quilting that makes it so hot now?
GM: I will tell you one thing, when I travel a lot and I’m on the planes, people will say to me, what do you do and I say I’m a quiltmaker and they go a what. I then say a quiltmaker, you know quilts, blankets. Oh my grandmother, almost without fail. Then the conversation starts and they remember that they have an aunt, almost everybody has an aunt or a granny that made quilts, so it starts triggering. I think it is just that personal. In the beginning people were making them with used clothing, which is another thing that is kind of lost and I don’t go there either, but I did, those quilts are like family history a lot of them, that everybody’s clothing, Uncle Harold’s shirt and bla bla bla were in there, and I think everybody knows that it was hand done for the family. Also, because nowadays we don’t make anything, we don’t even make our beds most people. You don’t make your own pie crusts, most people don’t. I would like to say I do. [laughs.] Anyway, I think that maybe it is that, because a lot of people have hung on, I mean there are a lot of people getting rid of their family quilts, they couldn’t care the less, but a lot of people are hanging on to stuff that they don’t really know too much about, but grandma made it and so.
AC: I have a follow up question. That explains why we like traditional quilts and historic quilts. What is the connection with people getting a pen and following the pattern and making a quilt and saying I did that? What is the connection, personal connection with it?
GM: I think when you make something yourself, even if you are following a pattern you still did it and it took you nine months and you accomplished it. The whole thing about patterns too I have to say is that we were, this generation, everybody here I think was raised with the idea of using patterns. Seventh grade home ec started with the apron. Off we went to the store and we got our pattern, we turned it over and it was like a yard and a half of fabric and we looked at the notions, and I myself was brought up that way. We were all taught to get the recipe or get the pattern and that was step one. It wasn’t until, and that was how I started quilting too, who would know. But it wasn’t too long, it was from looking at old quilts and I began to figure things out a little bit about how things were done. For instance, old quilts, if you look at old quilts, you see that a lot of times they did diagonal lines without marking them, and that is not hard to see if you look, you can figure that out pretty easily.
KM: Anyone else have a question?
Judy Rector (JR): I was wondering how many quilts you have made over your lifetime and who do you give the quilts to when you give them away.
GM: When I give them away, I like to say that my grandson who is seven has quite a pile of quilts and I have to curb that or they are going to have to add on. My kids, I have a son and daughter both, and they growing up with them, neither one of them sewed, but they value them and they know a lot about them. All they have to do is come and visit and say, ‘Oh, I love that one Mom.’ [laughs.] It is out the door. I don’t quite know. I actually have a, I keep good records, but I haven’t added them up. It doesn’t go from one to two hundred and ten, but my method of keeping records is pretty good, so if I were to say have an untimely departure, it would all be there in the filing cabinet, because I record every quilt on a 5X7 card with a snapshot attached too, and they are kind of organized like a special file just for the four and nine patch quilts, and a special file for the antique quilts, and a special file for the four block medallions, I have my little favorite kinds that I make.
KM: How many antique quilts do you have?
GM: I probably have probably eighty and probably fifty tops and I have tons of antique blocks, I have a lot of that sort of thing. I can tell you I have made over, I can tell you how many little quilts I have made, because I did those books for Dover, Twenty Little This and Twenty Little That and Twenty Little That, and so that is easier to keep track and I know I have over four hundred of those little quilts. I probably have made maybe two hundred quilts probably, including some crib quilts. I quilt in an old fashion church frame, the big stretcher frames, not the rectangular ones. I learned that from the Mennonites. That is how I learned so I have stuck with that. That is a quick way of quilting and I think if you do it all the time you get faster. I am a very fast hand quilter. I just don’t get tired of it either. [laughs.]
Peggy Long (PL): My name is Peggy Long and I’m from Pittsboro, Indiana. Do you have a plan for in scripting the quilts after you are no longer on this earth?
GM: No I do not. I’m all worn out from getting Mary Shafer’s quilts here. Also, I think there is a lot of us in this generation that have produced a lot of quilts, so the museums are not going to take them all. My only goal is to make sure that I figure that out and I don’t leave my children with that many quilts.
Pam Conklin (PC): This is Pam Conklin. Do you have your quilts appraised?
GM: No I don’t, because I have too many of them and I’m a working girl and I frankly can’t afford to do it. Also, insurance, trying to collect on insurance is not an easy thing, I don’t care how much documentation you have. I’m just taking my chances out here.
PC: How do you store your quilts?
GM: I have great big cupboards and I fold them up and put them in there. I like to remind people that I’m not a museum. I have gone on road trips before where I have had a quilt like this and then after I’m done with my lecture I take questions, and someone says, ‘Gwen, I can show you how to fold your quilts better.’ I just want to come off the stage. I remind them that I had to get here and that means that they are jammed in a suitcase and often times it takes me two days to get somewhere now thank you to the airlines, and so they are in there for two days coming and going. This is not a famous quilt, I made this and for the moment when I come home it is going on my grandson’s bed and he is going to pee on it probably, and then it will get washed. I make quilts like that, so I’m not, I’m just not a museum. I do the best I can. They get moved around a lot, so they are not folded up in there forever and I keep my antique ones in acid free boxes, but when you live in a house, I have fabric in the kitchen cupboards. You can’t open a door without something coming out of a quilted nature. There is no more room at the inn here and they are kind of everywhere and I do the best I can.
Andrea Baughman (AB): Do you have a studio?
GM: I do. I actually call it my sewing room and I hardly ever refer to it as this is my studio, because I think that sometimes makes people who don’t have one feel bad. When Mary Shafer made all those quilts, I’m going to talk about that today at lunch, from a little pile of materials that she had at the end of the couch and nowadays people feel like if they don’t have a studio they are not serious, so I call it my sewing room. On the other hand in my house now on Beaver Island which is 1700 hundred square feet, it is not very big, but the whole second floor is one big open space with big windows that look out so I have good light and that is where I make mine. I have a big Steel Case desk where I have my trusty old Singer, black Singer sewing machine sitting, which I prefer, don’t get me going on that, we are running out of time, but I will tell you later what I think about sewing machines.
JR: What do you think about when you quilt?
GM: Lots of things and one is because I teach a lot, as I’m sitting there working on a quilt I am thinking about ways I could present material better. Often times when I’m working at my quilting frame, I’m thinking about my basket seminar that is coming up and do I need to do anything else. Have I found all the antique quilts I have? I’m thinking about quilting and often time when I’m piecing quilts also have the computer on and I’m running over there writing instructions particularly with liberated stuff, because once it is made I forget all the little things that made it work and things that didn’t work at all, so I kind of keep track of stuff like that as I’m working.
KM: Believe it or not, forty-five minutes have gone by so we are going to conclude our interview. Thank you Gwen, you were wonderful.
GM: You are welcome.
KM: It is 11:01.
Gwen Marston, Interviewee
Karen Musgrave, Interviewer
Kim Greene, Transcriber
The Quilters Hall of Fame QSOS
July 21, 2007
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