Amy Henderson (AH): My name is Amy Henderson and I’m conducting an interview with Karen Alexander at the American Quilt Study Group Conference at Colonial Williamsburg for the Quilters’ [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories project on Saturday, October 13, 2001 at 3:40 p.m. Why don’t we start? Please tell me where you’re from.
Karen Alexander (KA): Well, I currently live in Reston, Virginia, which is in Fairfax County, about 30 minutes south of and west of D.C.
AH: Is this where you grew up?
KA: No, I grew up in northern Ohio. My father taught at Kent State University, but his roots are in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. That’s where the focus of my research is–the Shenandoah Valley. I’ve been privileged to–he’s given me four or five tied comforters from my great-grandfather’s home, which he inherited in 1974 in Page County. I’ve made the three counties where my ancestors settled Page, Shenandoah County and Rockingham County the focus of my research. Our earliest Mennonite ancestors arrived about 1740.
AH: Wow, so you’re both an historian and a quilter.
KA: Yes, mainly an historian now. I haven’t made a quilt in a long time.
AH: But you did bring an object for us to talk about today.
KA: Ah, yes.
AH: Tell me about it in terms of age and you made this quilt?
KA: No, this is one in my collection from Page County.
KA: I subscribe to the newspaper from Page County, so that I can follow the estate auctions. I try to get in at the ground level, since my budget is limited. I have been to maybe four or five auctions over the ten years I have lived in Virginia. When I walked up from the road, up the gravel driveway, to this particular auction, they had a double clothesline of quilts hanging. This one was in the second line, so it was sort of hidden. The wind was blowing the quilts in front of it. The first row of quilts were much more subdued, but I could see this color flashing through as the wind blew the other quilts. My heart just started thumping. As I approached the quilts, I made myself walk real slow and come around the end of the clothesline. When I saw the ‘bold one’ I just thought, ‘Of all these estate auctions I’ve been to, this one is the most unusual. Please, I want this one.’ I decided I would go for broke on this.
AH: Describe for us the pattern and the colors.
KA: It’s a Feathered Star. It’s a variation of the Feathered Star; I’ll put it that way. I found three similar patterns to it in Barbara Brackman’s book. But this one has a very unusual center. In the center of each block is square of navy blue with a small white design in it. Right in the middle of each of those squares is an almond-shaped, double-pink, as we call it, piece of fabric–which comes totally out of the blue, you might say. One of the reasons I was attracted to this quilt is that I like the unusual. This quilt is unusual but traditional at the same time. Maybe that’s it. So it was a traditional pattern, piecing and all, yet it’s unusual too. This woman must have been a real ‘individual,’ I thought. That’s reflected in her choice of colors, as well as this almond shape in the middle of each block–she just came up with something that had nothing to do with the traditional pattern. I’m very drawn to the traditional Swiss-German Pennsylvania colors. Those same Swiss-German people migrated down into Virginia along the Great Valley Road, down into the Shenandoah Valley, and my ancestors on my father’s side were among them. So first the colors drew me then when I got up close and saw it–I felt this was an unusual person who’d made this. And I liked that.
AH: What do you feel is unique about the color combination?
KA: It’s just very bold. To me, it says something about a person who’s not afraid of boldness. There were a lot of subdued colors available at that time. She didn’t choose subdued colors. Apparently she didn’t feel like she had to be this little subdued person. It’s just lively and it makes you want to dance–well, it makes me want to dance. So that’s what I like about it. I like the cheddar orange here; I’ve always liked that color in a quilt. I like the cheddar in conjunction with the greens and the double-pinks. Then it’s got enough blue and brown to tone it down just a little bit.
AH: What did you learn about the fabrics? When were they manufactured?
KA: My guess is the quilt is ca. 1880’s – 1890’s. I am fairly certainly most of the fabrics are from that era. It’s possible that there are a few fabrics that might be a little bit earlier. The maker has little tiny points in those feathered stars, and some of those fabrics are possibly earlier. She must have really dug deep into someone’s scrap bag to come up with those little tiny pieces. So I think there are a few that might be a bit earlier. But I haven’t taken it to my fabric dating club yet to see if they agree with my opinion. Could these be earlier, maybe 1870’s? Possibly but probably not as early as 1860’s. Another reason I love the quilt is, again, because my family roots are in the Shenandoah Valley. This quilt actually comes from a family quite close to my great-grandfather’s home. So it gives me a sense of the fabrics my great-grandmother and great aunts in the Valley could have been using.
AH: Now you’re also a quilter, even though you didn’t make this one.
KA: Yes. I started quilting in 1980. My mother-in-law, Wini Alexander of Seattle, Washington, really is the one who got me interested in actually making quilts. She started making quilts for my children in 1976 and my children are her only grandchildren. She surprised us one year by presenting a quilt to my daughter on her birthday. I had sent my oldest daughter’s artwork off to her, and lo and behold she made a quilt out of my daughter’s artwork, interpreting each piece of art in a different form of needlework. She had always done many kinds of needlework and only took up quilting in the mid-seventies. So she used her other forms of needlework to create each block, and then embroidered a huge 1976 in the center bottom block of the quilt. I was just so enthralled at this on many levels. It so honored my daughter, showing my daughter how much her grandmother valued her artwork, not to mention the amount of time and effort that went into that quilt. Now we have forever a treasured memory of my daughter’s artwork in fabric. Wini kept all the original artwork for me, too, in a folder, so I have that to go with it. So she got me into other forms of needlework first. When we moved to Virginia from California for the first time, in 1979, and lived in the Richmond area, that put me within an hour and a half of the Shenandoah Valley. My father had just inherited my great-grandfather’s home from his cousin a couple years earlier. I went back to that house for the first time since a child–I think ’58 was the last time I had been in the house. There were all the thick tied comforters on the beds, and all of a sudden the memories started coming back. I only remember two, maybe three visits as a child, but I loved visiting the Valley as a child. My father started giving me some of these comforters from my great-grandfather’s house. That’s when I decided to sign up for a quilting class in Richmond, joined a guild, and took a series of classes from the extension service, I believe. The woman who was teaching–Vicki Arnett was also one of the founders of the Richmond Guild, which was only about two or three years old at that point. I made a Sampler Quilt, did it quilt-as-you-go and did fairly well until I quilted it. With quilt-as-you-go you piece and then quilt one block at a time and you put all the blocks together at the end. Well, I discovered when I went to put the blocks together with the sashing, that some of my blocks had shrunk. I didn’t know that as you quilt, the block shrinks if you don’t keep your tension correct. Of course, this being my first quilt, the blocks had shrunk in size. [laughs.] So I had to add tiny little slivers of fabric to get the block big enough. I did finally get all of that together and got the sashing in and got the borders on, but never got the batting added to the borders, so the quilt is still unfinished.
AH: Do you think you’ll ever finish it?
KA: Yeah, I think I will someday. But then I moved on to making smaller things then, like wall hangings, and did a series of quilted hoops and began to sell my stuff through Rocky Road Kansas in Alexandria, Virginia. I even taught a beginner’s class at a local quilt shop – a beginner teaching beginners. I began doing a lot of white-on-white work, small things. But then I finally started another bed-size quilt. I had seen a beautiful folk-art quilt at the Abby Rockefeller Museum while here in Williamsburg on a visit. It was what I call a Snowflake design, where you fold paper, and fold paper, and then you cut out the design, and then open the paper to see what you have. If you like your design, you translate it to fabric. It’s a form of appliqué. I liked that quilt so much that I sketched a couple of their ideas. Then I just went home and folded paper and started cutting out my own ideas until I had twelve patterns that I really liked. I had a piece of dark forest green fabric from the family home in Page County, and I used that as the fabric for the appliqué, and I had a beautiful dark red, blood red, I’ll call it, not a bright red, in my stash for the sashing. To those two I added muslin for the back. I call this quilt “Valley Christmas Memories.” I started the appliqué in ’82 and had about three-quarters appliquéd and moved to New Orleans in ’83 and finished the appliqué. But then I went to work full-time in convention planning. That was an extremely fascinating job and very time consuming, plus I got into genealogy, so I didn’t spend the time quilting while in New Orleans that I had done in Richmond. However, I made one more quilt during those years, a baby quilt for a cousin. Meanwhile, I got Valley Christmas Memories half-quilted, put it away and I didn’t quilt on it again until September 11, 2001. When all that happened, I had to have something to do. I got that quilt out and started quilting on it again.
AH: How did it help you that day?
KA: Well, I don’t normally watch much television, but I sat in front of that television for ten days straight watching the news. Having the needlework to do always was, when I was quilting back in the ’80s in Virginia–very therapeutic, very meditative, very calming to me. Those events of 9-11, of course, were very, very upsetting for all of us. They happened to come on the tail end of a lot of other sadness and crises that happened in my life that summer. So I really needed to have something in my hands–something to do that was meditative and calming. So I turned once again to quilting.
AH: Do you feel that the meaning of that quilt has changed over the seventeen years that you’ve been working on it?
KA: Yes, I think in particular because of the event that triggered me to go back to it. Getting a threaded needle in my hand once again got me in touch with what I always had loved about quilting. It’s so tactile. And the actual doing of it is comforting as well as challenging. But the other thing I love about quilting is the history attached to quilts; the history attached to quilting, especially women’s history and family history so now that quilt begun 17 years ago encompasses so much more. There’s the fact that the fabric came from my great-grandfather’s home and there are all my Valley memories. There are my Richmond memories. There’s my New Orleans memories and then I pick it up again at this time of great crisis in our own American history. So it definitely will have far more memories than if I had finished it seventeen years ago.
AH: As an historian and a quiltmaker, are you interested in documenting in any way your change in mood and feeling and need while working on that quilt so that twenty years down the line your daughters or your grandchildren will understand what you went through when you were quilting on it?
KA: Yes. I have kept a journal since 1976. All my quilt work, whether it’s actually the making of the quilts or whether it’s my research, I keep quite a journal going of what I’m up to. But it’s interesting. What has changed the most, however, in all these years of journaling is e-mail. I find that I correspond a lot by email now. I save all my emails and have them backed-up on Zip disks. In fact, I even made a note in my journal, my hand-written journal that is, the other day–that it is very difficult to hand-write, with all this emotion, but I could get online and type and then send emails to my friends and talk about what I was feeling and the experience of quilting this quilt at this time. But I could not write, because my handwriting was–it just took so much more emotional effort to hand-write. Plus it was too slow. My thoughts and feelings were racing and I wanted my fingers to be able to keep up so I typed emails instead of handwriting in my journal.
AH: What is your first quilt memory?
KA: Probably sleeping under the quilts down in my great-grandfather’s home in the Shenandoah Valley. They were very heavy, big, thick comforters. The beds were – oh my, the mattresses on the beds, ugh. They were four-poster beds; some of them rope beds, and two beds to a room. The floor slanted badly in one particular bedroom. The mattresses were not modern mattresses. I’m not sure what they are but they’re not real comfortable. The quilts were so heavy, and I think there were maybe two of them to the bed. The combination of the spooky house and my great-aunts–they had skirts almost down to their ankles – and of course I thought they were really old and didn’t know anything about the modern era. This was the late 40s and early ’50s, but they seemed like from another century to me. So, actually my first memories of quilts were kind of like, ‘Wow, these are heavy, dark things.’ It wasn’t until my mother-in-law made that quilt in 1976 and gave it to my daughter where I really associated a different kind of feeling with quilts. But I always had this sense of family history associated with quilts, especially Valley history.
AH: How does quilting impact your daily life?
KA: Well, since 1985 until very recently, the actual making of quilts, not much. But since I do a lot of research, and I do a lot of genealogy associated with quilts, I’d say at least four days out of seven I’m either into quilt history research or the actual genealogy of a quilt maker. So, quilts are very much on my mind–this is my life. I quit work as a convention planner about ten years ago. My research and writing is really my life now. Plus I have now started to lecture as well.
AH: What do you think makes a quilt particularly powerful?
KA: To me, color. I would say color first then design. But how do you separate the two? I love art quilts. I like traditional and art quilts. I probably like funky traditional more than real spit-and-polish traditional. I like art quilts because they go outside the box. I like that sense of–like I said in the beginning about this quilt–that this says something about a woman who, to me, must have thought outside the box in her own little neighborhood. I know the maker of this quilt beside me grew up in a very traditional, high-expectation traditional-era, and so I look at this and I just think, ‘This surely is a woman who thought outside the box a little bit.’
AH: Have any quilters greatly influenced your work, or even influenced the way you look at quilts? Historic quilts or contemporary quilts?
KA: I would say the members of AQSG [American Quilt Study Group.] have personally been the greatest influence in my life. When I started quilting in 1980 a friend in Richmond told me that there was a new research organization starting. I don’t know if she called it “research” she may have referred to it as “history.” Anyway, she said they’re going to start groups where they’re just going to get together and talk about history of quilts. I go, ‘Yes! Where is the local chapter? Where can I join this organization?’ I joined in ’81 but I didn’t attend a meeting until ’85 for they were only meeting in California. Between ’81 and ’95 the person who probably most impacted me was Erma Kilpatrick, who is a member of AQSG. She had come up from North Carolina in 1981 to speak at our guild and I was really drawn to her. She made quilts as well as did research, and that appealed to me, the combination of the two. She invited me to come down to Chapel Hill and stay with her and bring my friend and attend the North Carolina Quilt Symposium, which I did. I stayed with her a couple of nights. She and I became good friends and we started corresponding. She encouraged my interest in the history and writing, in fact, she encouraged my writing very much. When I moved to New Orleans, I drove my kids and the cat and everything else down to New Orleans. We spent the night on the road with her. I called her up and said, ‘Erma, I’m coming through. Can we all park at your house?’ I knew I could always do that with Erma. Eventually I joined a guild in Louisiana but did not actively participate very often. Very seldom in fact–occasionally volunteered time for this or that. But I did not actively participate. I was too busy and satisfied with my new job as convention planner, plus three kids and volunteer work at that point in my life to continue with the quilt making, other than the one baby quilt I mentioned earlier but I did continue to read and study. Then when I moved back to Virginia in 1989, I got into genealogy, big time, started a newsletter and started writing. Erma continued to be an encouragement to my writing. Then in March ’95 when the Smithsonian had their first quilt research conference, I went to that and, of course, saw Erma there. That’s when she introduced me to Hazel Carter, who is also a member of AQSG and the founder of the Quilters Hall of Fame [Marion, Indiana.]. I had never met her before, yet we only lived about six miles apart. Then when Erma told Hazel about my writing, she said, ‘Come get involved with us because we need some good writers.’ Hazel and I subsequently became very good friends. So my natural bent for writing and research then got channeled in a new direction, which was great fun. I shifted from majoring in genealogy to doing stuff for the Hall of Fame.
AH: How would you differentiate the time you spend quilting versus the time researching? Do you gain similar benefits from both activities or different?
KA: Interesting question. Quilting–when I quilt, my mind wanders and drifts to many other things. Lots of times, when I used to quilt a lot, I found myself thinking about my children or other scattered family members; what trials and tribulations they might be going through; reliving memories; thinking about my mythology studies–my other hobby is the study comparative mythology. Anyway, I would wander down those trails, thinking about some of the ideas I had been reading about. So I get into a very meditative mode when I do needlework. When I’m doing research, I’m very focused on just what it is I’m up to at that moment. You can’t let your mind wander when you’re doing research like you can when you’re quilting. The only time I go off on tangents when I am studying is if something I’m reading in this particular book jogs a memory of something else I’ve read that would help this research, then I might jump up and go into another file or book or something like that. There’s not the conscious meditation, but there’s definitely the deep satisfaction. It’s just different way to get to that satisfaction.
AH: What do you think you’ve gained from the fellowship of the AQSG?
KA: Soul sisters, just wonderful soul sisters who appreciate the quilt from so many different dimensions, which is what quilts mean to me. They are not one-dimensional at all to me. There’s the making of them, the tactile process and the meditative journey. Then there’s the family history. It’s such a touchstone for family history. Then there’s women’s history, because I feel like through quilts–one of the most important things for me about quilts is that they have become such a wonderful vehicle of our culture finally honoring women’s history. They’re so tangible and so graphic and people seem drawn to them effortlessly. Quilts have now broken all kinds of museum attendance records, in museums that are not even quilt museums. There is something unique about quilts that draws people in–I suspect most of the time they’re not even conscious of what it is. Quilts capture women’s lives, women who would never have been remembered for anything, and now there’s this whole group of people researching women’s lives, trying to track down who made this quilt, that quilt. Get her name; where was she from; what can you find out about her. Write it down; attach it to this quilt; put it in a book, put it somewhere! So a dimension of women’s history is finally getting documented. I just think it’s incredible that quilts are that vehicle. There were far fewer women painters than women quilters in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it’s certainly easier to trace a woman’s personal history through the quilts she made than the food she cooked. The food gets eaten and it’s gone. What else do women do that can become a tangible vehicle of their history but write or stitch? Early cross-stitched samplers have always been very popular but I don’t think anything holds a candle to quilts though. So quilts are a vehicle for women’s history; I think that is incredibly powerful. Since I got involved in 1980, I feel like rings from that pebble dropped in the pond since the mid-seventies has just spread out and out and out. There is so much more we know now about women’s history because of the research this group [AQSG.] has done–like the quilts that were sent to Europe during World Wars I & II. I wonder how many were aware of that until someone in this group did that research. This particular seminar paper blew me away because it opened a whole new area of quilt history I had never been aware of before. Women made quilts for the Civil War. They made them during World War I. They’ve made quilts and given them away by the thousands and hundreds of thousands in time of war. I’m not sure about any “war quilts” prior to the Civil War. But since the Civil War, the quilts have been made en masse and shipped off to soldiers and refugees alike. In my quilting lifetime, the last twenty years, American quilters in particular have sent quilts all over the world in time of crisis. I’m hoping we’re going to give bundles of quilts to Afghanistan and Pakistan, for people in that area of the world. Make sure they’re warm this winter. That’s just one small aspect of what quilters do. I think that’s a wonderful way for people to communicate and to show that we care about other people.
AH: What are some of the other stories that you feel quilts communicate?
KA: Well, I definitely think that for some people, the quilt may be more important to them as simply an artistic vehicle, as artistic expression. I’m very excited to see what’s happened to the art quilt in the last 20 years, what we call the art quilt now. Art quilters are not just women, but are predominantly women. I am pleased to see that quilts have become a greater vehicle for art. I think that’s one of the big changes. We may talk more about traditional quilting and traditional uses of quilting, which I kind of focused on in my life – but the art quilt’s a wonderful shift that I have loved ever since I first saw my first Quilt National, and Michael James, Nancy Crow and Susan Shie’s work.
AH: What questions do you think we should be asking quilts and quiltmakers today?
KA: I always like to ask the question, ‘Why are you making this quilt? What influenced you to make this quilt?’ If I just start with those two questions the story that evolves takes you down all kinds of roads. So, ‘Why are you making this quilt and what influenced its design and where is it going next; are you going to sell it; are you going to give it away; is it going to become a family keepsake?’ When I lecture, I encourage them to document while they’re making, or at the least, document the back of the quilt. I think that is pretty standard procedure now for most quilters. Document the quilt’s history right on the quilt itself. But I do like to encourage quilters to keep a written quilt journal and document their thoughts as they are working. Such journals are going to be wonderful sources for future historians to plumb.
AH: Can you elaborate at all on what ways quilts have special meanings for women’s history and experience in America? You talked a little bit about as their–an area they could express themselves artistically.
KA: Well, let’s look at it chronologically. I think we have always assumed women made quilts for warmth, first. But I think many did it consciously for artistic reasons as well – and then eventually they started making some for political reasons as well. That’s another whole strain of quilt history–the political use of quilts. I can’t recall right off the top of my head what was the first documented political quilt. The first thing that comes to mind of course is the anti-slavery quilts. I can’t remember if there were any prior to that, though I think the Temperance Quilts may have come earlier. Those are probably the most well known early political uses of quilts. Then starting in the late 1960s / ’70s quilts once again became a very popular political vehicle for saying all kinds of things about the women’s movement and women’s lives. I’d say its political use really exploded then. It’s an old use for quilts; it’s not a brand new use. I just think it’s been more out there, more in your face – especially some of the designs that came out in what many label the radical ’60s and ’70s. I remember one particular quilt made in Northern California in the ’70s, though I can’t remember the name of the women’s group out there that made it. But they made some of the first posters and calendars out of their political quilts that I, personally, ever saw. I break this type of quilt down into two groups: political quilts and political action quilts. The political action quilts expressed everything from the burning of the bra to domestic violence and everything in between–graphically depicting women’s issues through symbols in ways not thought of as feminine, or traditionally proper to discuss, whatever, before the radical ’60s. This Northern California group portrayed in this quilt via appliqué blocks all kinds of stories, and it was just really outrageous and wonderful.
AH: Is there anything else you’d like to say about quilting that I haven’t already asked you? It could also be about this quilt, in particular, if you wanted to add more of your thoughts about it.
KA: I guess one of the questions that keeps coming to my mind is the need for research overseas in the individual countries where quilting has spread or been reawakened. So I’m really excited and curious to see what the future will be for the research in all these other countries as well. Just look what’s happened in Japan alone in the last fifteen years–think of the documentation that needs to done there. The research on Korean quilting presented today at the seminar; and research on the quilts that have been shipped overseas, given away during times of crisis in the past twenty years, and so forth. I’m really hoping someday to see someone do that research as well. I know there’s somebody working on the quilts that were shipped to England during World War II. Some documentation is coming out on that now. But what about–I think the earthquake in Armenia – that just comes to mind, that big earthquake several years ago. Wherever crises have occurred, Americans have shipped quilts. Ever since the launch of the Internet, every time there’s a crisis somewhere, eventually up pops someone on one of my quilts list saying, ‘Okay, we’re making a bunch of quilts to ship to wherever overseas to meet these needs.’ Remember the huge mudslides down there in Central America a couple of years ago, and Mexico with the earthquakes there? American quilts have gone overseas. I want to see those stories documented someday. I don’t know, maybe it’s too bold to say but I wonder if someday we’ll look back and say that the American quilt was as indigenous to American culture as jazz. I just wonder if any other culture has taken the quilt and done with it what we have done with it in our culture. Just like we did with music via jazz, I think the American quilter in the 20th century mastered a convergence of styles and added their own unique improvisation on a theme. The European and black strains, the Creole strains came together for jazz and made it an American music that has spread all over the world. American quilters have now been doing that with the quilt for more–well over 15 decades, with an enormous resurgence of interest and artistic excellence in the later half of the 20th century.
AH: Why do you think women choose to make quilts as a donation or a gift to these areas in crisis? What do you think that those women, quilt makers, gain from the experience of making those quilts?
KA: I think it gives us the opportunity to express our awareness of being a part of a larger human community and let’s others know that we want to participate in their crisis. We can’t go there; we can’t be there, but we can give a very tangible part of ourselves, because our personal creative energy has gone into it. Quilts warm others and they can bring a bit of beauty to their fractured lives as well.
AH: I’d like to thank you, Karen, for talking with me today for the Quilters’ [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories project. This interview concluded at 3:17 [probably 4:17.] p.m.
KA: Thank you. Thank you for the opportunity.