ID Number: TQ.2014.007
Name of Interviewee: Glenda Smith
Name of Interviewer: Pat Wills
Name of Transcriber: Pat Wills
Location: Glenda’s home
Address: Appleton Roebuck, York, Yorkshire
Date: 23 May 2014
Length of interview: 0:37:16
Glenda started a quilt, based on her garden, for her City and Guild’s final project but decided the ‘My Garden’ quilt would not be ready in time. She talks about hand dyeing the fabric, the time spent hand quilting it and entering it into the Harrogate Quilt Show. Later she explains her sewing history, how she got into quiltmaking in America, seeing a sewing room ‘heaven on earth’ and on the contrasts between quilting in America and the UK. Glenda’s family as well as her quilting group friends have influenced her quiltmaking. In the second half of the interview Glenda talks about her sewing room, her involvement in The Quilt Museum and her fabric addiction.
Pat Wills [PW]: I’m Pat Wills and I am a Talking Quilts interviewer in Yorkshire
Glenda Smith [GS]: I’m Glenda Smith and I’m the interviewee
PW: Thank you very much for inviting me here today, that’s very much appreciated. As you know we want to talk about quilts to add the information to the archive for The Quilters’ Guild and I am delighted that you’re happy to take part in the interview process. One of the things that we thought it would make it easier to talk is to have an artefact that is important to you and I am really pleased to see that you have brought along with you today one of your quilts. Well, let’s make a start. Let’s have a chat.
GS: Fine. What would you like to know?
PW: Well I can see that it’s a very large quilt [laughter]. Give me a little bit of the background… about why you decided to make it in the first place.
GS: This quilt was going to be my final City and Guilds quilt. I started in 1996 at the end of my patchwork City and Guilds and it soon, very soon, it quickly became apparent that my ideas were not going to be done in the time available. So it got left and I produced a different quilt, for my grandson as it happens, and this was done in fits and starts really. I needed hand sewing for when I met with a group of ladies so I started doing the hexagons. I’d cut up huge amounts because I really didn’t quite know how to go about it when I started it. So I knew I wanted to do squares too. I’d looked at a book by a lady called Deirdre Amsden who does colourwash quilts, that’s the title of the book, and I was a great admirer of hers and I thought I’ll have a go at that. However my fabrics were not quite like hers, they didn’t blend that well. So, instead of doing straight squares if you like, I did almost a brick effect and I found that doing that it actually worked. So I cut up vast amounts of squares and then moved them around until I got them just right which is probably why it took a long time.
I knew I wanted a wall [NB there is a dry stone wall in the corner] I bought some of the fabrics. So a lot of the fabrics I already had, they were scraps, they were bits of dresses of the children’s and bits I’d had for years and years, but most of the wall fabrics I bought and cut into brick sized blocks and sewed together with another layer of wadding underneath to make it stand out a weeny bit more. And gradually it just sort of took shape.
The idea, I just knew exactly what I wanted to do right from the start. I had a beautiful garden at the time and so the idea came from there and I sort of wanted to record it but, in fact, that’s probably a lot nicer than my garden was. And the pond came about because I cut a lot of blue squares and I’d got a gap and I didn’t quite know what to put there. I thought I’ve got all these blue squares left over, we’ll have a pond [laughter]. So lo and behold, there’s the pond! And the trellis, we did have trellis with roses growing over it, so I did want to incorporate that.
PW: So that all sounds very interesting. Thank you Glenda. So what use do you actually make of the quilt now it’s finished?
GS: Well, it’s on my bed. It’s no use having a quilt if you’re not going to use it. I do like to use all my quilts or I like people to use the quilts I give them so, yes, it’s on my bed all the time.
PW: And what do you think this quilt tells us about you? As a quilter, you as a person?
GS: Well I would like everyone to think ‘Oh it’s absolutely wonderful, fantastic’ but no, I have no idea what it tells you about me… [laughter]. It says ‘I tried’ I think!
PW: Over and over and over again because it took you a long time to do.
GS: The hand quilting’s interesting… because it’s all hand quilted and what made me finish it in the end is that I joined a patchwork group and they were having an exhibition and I thought ‘oh gosh, I haven’t got a quilt to put in this exhibition’. I’d got little bits and bobs, but I thought really I’ve got to put a quilt in and I’d got this quilt which by that time was three parts made so I really got on with it and worked at it. The exhibition was about May, no I think it was about March. It was quite early in the year actually and I hadn’t started quilting so, in fact, from round about Christmas time, I sat all day, every day, hand quilting to get it, and I hadn’t quite finished it when the exhibition came up but it looked OK.
PW: It was sufficient.
GS: It was sufficient. Yes.
PW: And did you win any awards for this?
GS: Not then, not at that time. But when I got up here the following year, I put it into the Harrogate Quilt Show and I won a cup for Best Scrap Quilt.
PW: And you see, you are being very modest about this.
GS: So I was quite proud of myself actually.
PW: I’m absolutely sure… It’s such an exquisite range of colours and the way that it goes from one area, as you say, the wall and the fabrics that you’ve used. The wadding that you’ve used to give that a 3D shape and right through all of these greens into bluey greens and yellowy greens and to me, having seen your beautiful garden here I can only imagine what your garden was like when you were making this. And it does tell me something about you because it certainly shows that you like your garden and….
GS: Well as the maker I know what’s wrong with it. I think that always happens. If I did it again, I don’t think I ever would do it again! but if I were doing it again I probably would do it slightly differently because obviously I’ve learned a lot since then. But it wasn’t bad. It was going to be my first ever bed quilt, but in the event, because it took six years to make, I did actually produce quite a few more in the meantime.
PW: So why did you choose this particular one to talk about today?
GS: Just because I’m most proud of it I suppose. It’s because it shows a lot of different techniques and it won a cup. It’s the only one I’ve ever won! My grandchildren think it’s wonderful that I’ve won a cup [laughter].
PW: I’m sure they do, and quite rightly so I think. So what started the interest in quilt making in the beginning?
GS: I had always been a sewer, from being about three I was sewing buttons on to a cloth belt that my mother gave me while she was sewing clothes I was sewing buttons on and I’d made children’s clothes as they grew up. And when we lived in America from 1980 to 1983 and I saw a friend of mine one day and she had the makings of the start of a quilt she was making. She showed me and I said ‘Oh that’s absolutely gorgeous’ and she said she’d been to this particular lady who was a quilt maker and did lessons. So, I thought I shall have to go there, so off I went. This particular American lady had the biggest double garage I have ever seen even for an American. And it had been converted into a workshop. Sewing workshop. And all the way down one length of it were shelves with bolts of fabrics on, all colour graded. It was amazing. There were sewing machines round the walls, well two of the walls. There were blocks, tables for cutting out on. Absolutely heaven on earth. So I went to her and said ‘I know absolutely nothing about it, I can sew’ and I thought I’d just whip up a quick quilt on the machine. And she said ‘Oh no, no, if you’ve not done any patchwork before you’ve got to do it by hand.’ So she helped me to choose a pattern which was actually for a sampler quilt and then each time I went to her we did another block. And there were twelve blocks, yes twelve blocks and I’d just got the blocks finished before we were posted back home. So I came back home with all of the fabrics to finish it off and, sure enough I finished it off by hand and quilted it by hand. I’ve still got that, tucked away somewhere. Yes.
PW: So that was the start?
GS: That was the start. So when I got back to England, having had access to all of these wonderful fabrics, we were in Lincolnshire, my husband being in the RAF and there were no patchwork shops and, of course, the internet wasn’t going then. People weren’t advertising really very much and so I joined a quilting group but what we used were offcuts from a sheet manufacturer. There was a chap that sold it on the market in bags and you bought a lb weight bag or something. Very cheap and we all used that. And I still have things around today from, because they don’t fade. All polycotton but they don’t fade.
PW: So you talked about the fact that you really had sewed from the age of 3. Were there other quiltmakers in your family?
GS: No, no. And my mother hated quilting. She thought only poor people made quilts and it’s quite funny really, because I made her a cushion to go with her three-piece suite and she said ‘Oh yes, very nice dear’ and that was that and she plonked it on there. And then another time I just happened to see a panel I could quilt that would go with her suite, so I bought that and made her another cushion with this quilted panel. She thought the quilted panel cushion was absolutely wonderful but the patchwork cushion she didn’t think anything to at all until her friends came in. Her friends went ‘Oh’. The patchwork cushion was the one of course [laughter].
PW: So you’ve obviously done a lot of quilt making. Have there been any amusing incidents? That’s a good example…
GS: I’ve got another one. My second grandson, I tend to wait until… partly because it takes me a long time, partly because I like them to wait for the children to begin to develop a personality and have interests before I make them a bed quilt… and so, my second grandson was absolutely potty about dinosaurs. Oh, everything was dinosaurs and I came across a pattern for a dinosaur quilt. So I made him that and I gave it to him for a Christmas present. He was absolutely thrilled. He was so thrilled he sat on it, on the floor, and immediately wet himself [much laughter]. So, it had to go straight into the wash.
PW: I bet he loves that story now…
GS: Mmm. He’s 17 now…
PW: It obviously gives you a lot of pleasure…
GS: It does
PW: So what particular aspect? What do you particularly like?
GS: I just like shutting myself away. It’s relaxing. I like the planning I suppose, coordinating. It takes me an awful long time to make a quilt. I like to take it slowly. I like to plant the bits on my design wall and just build it up gradually. The design wall is where I can see it if I just poke my head in the door so I’m not sure about colours I plonk bits I’ve made on the wall and every time I come upstairs I pop my head round the door and I get an immediate impression as to whether they go or not. It works, it seems to work quite well actually, because I’m not terribly good with colours and I’m not terribly artistic, but I get there in the end. I think that’s it really. Plugging away at it.
PW: And I think everyone has their own approach don’t they? And it develops in different ways. Do you have a lot of involvement with other quilt groups? Do they influence the way that you do things? The way that you work?
GS: Yes, I suppose so. I belong to Priory Patchworkers and I have a group that meet at home. We call ourselves the Ainsty Quilters because we live in the Ainsty of York. And of course, we see what each other is doing, encourage each other and carry on. Occasionally someone’s got a little pattern of a block that I haven’t seen before or that I quite like. I’ll make that up and keep it or make it into a bag or something. And if I’m not sure about something I can take my bits along and say, ‘does this look alright?’ That’s a great help and it keeps me going. There was a period when we lived at our previous house when I didn’t belong to a group and I did very little quilting so it just keeps me going.
PW: That social aspect just encourages you whereas being by yourself can be quite lonely? So do you have any particular techniques that you particularly like?
GS: No, not really. I will choose the technique which will suit the quilt that I’m making, whatever that may be. So, I have quite a number of books [laughter], I’ve been to quite a number of workshops and I take away from them, something which gets stored at the back of my mind somewhere and when I’m making a quilt, I ponder it. I spend a lot of time thinking about it, a huge amount of time thinking about it and then gradually build up what I want. I always draw it on paper, A4 size but, sometimes what’s A4 size doesn’t translate to a main quilt. So that’s why I find the design wall very handy. I can plonk it on there and tell if it’s coming along alright.
PW: I mean it’s lovely sitting in your sewing room while we are doing the interview and, obviously for people listening, it’s more difficult for them to envisage it. Can you describe it to them?
GS: What, that one?
PW: No, your room, your working space.
GS: My room. It’s actually the second bedroom, so it’s a reasonable size room. It has now got sewing machine tables on three sides. It has, on the fourth side, is a block of cupboards and drawers which contain all of my fabrics and all sorts of notions. Bits and bobs. One wall has a fabric cover which actually looks like a bit like a blanket, but it was actually bought for making a design wall. It’s squared which is sometimes useful but it isn’t always square. So I can pop my bits on there and look at it. The ironing board stays permanently up because I am always up and down. My main machine is a Bernina 820 so it’s quite large and that stays out but I’ve got a few other machines around the place which I get out for various different jobs. And that’s probably it really. The whole of the walls have…. most of the old wall hangings, that, and other things I don’t know what to do with. There’s a dress form that gets used for throwing quilts over the UFOs.
PW: So, you’ve got this wonderful space, how do you then balance your time, if you like, in terms of being able to spend time quilting and fitting everything else in your life?
GS: Well, because it’s here, because the machine stays out, if I’ve got half an hour I can come up here. And this is what happens. If I’ve got an afternoon, I’ll spend an afternoon up here working but otherwise, as I say, I can pop up for half an hour. Especially when I’m building on colours and patterns. I do very little regular pattern work, like that one that’s on the design wall now. Because I get a bit bored doing the same block over and over again. So I usually do a mixture of applique and blocks, just for a bit of variety.
PW: And do you have several things going on at the same time so you can swap from one to the other?
GS: Yes I do. I like to take my quilts slowly. I’m a bit vain about them actually. I’m always amazed at how well they turn out [laughter]. I think ‘gosh, I made that’ It helps me use the fabrics that I’ve got. I love fabrics. I’m addicted to buying fabric as I think all quiltmakers are. I spread it all over the floor, in piles, well for this quilt I have. In piles, in different shades of colours. Sometimes I put my fabrics over an ironing board, not an ironing board, a clothes horse, so I can see what I have got, but this one I’ve got more fabric so they’re piled on the floor.
PW: So, taking a step back in a way and concentrating on you and your feelings about quilts. What do you think it is that makes a great quilt? You talked about being vain because you’re very pleased with the finished product… what is it about that that particularly strikes you?
GS: If I knew, I’d be a better quilter [laughter]. But, theoretically, it’s the use of colour and design. The juxtaposition of pattern… patterns and the colours. When I see a quilt, a stunning quilt, it is I think, the colour hits you first and the design and the workmanship.
PW: So if you were then going to select a quilt to go into a museum or a special collection, what is it that you think would make that particular quilt, not necessarily yours but any quilt, suitable to be part of the collection?
GS: Well I know that at the Quilt Museum we collect ones that show a particular technique, ones that are a particular age, ones that have a particular style of block or something like that. So you want a variety and … yes that’s it, the variety.
PW: And I mean, what is it that makes a great quiltmaker? Obviously there are ones in the collection that represent certain historical phases but if you think about ones that stand out because it’s a specific quiltmaker what is it about that particular person?
GS: I think the best quiltmakers are artists. That’s what you have to be to be a really good quiltmaker and I know from doing City and Guilds people who were artistic made quilts that have that ‘wow’ factor.
PW: Yes, and I think that is very much true isn’t it? And are there any particular artists, quilt artists that you are particularly drawn by?
GS: Artists or quiltmakers?
PW: If you’ve got an artist who is a quiltmaker they are an artist in their own right.
GS: Well, yes they are…
PW: But I think it can be either or…
GS: Yes, true. Quiltmakers. I’ve mentioned before, Deirdre Amsden. I go for techniques as well as the finished item if you like. So Jennie Rayment I absolutely love. I don’t know if you’ve come across her but she’s absolutely wonderful and I’ve used a lot of her. I admire her manipulating fabric, so I have done some of that as well. I am a great admirer of Amy Emms and Lilian Hedley both of whom do wholecloth quilts and I would love to do something like that and I’m still working towards it. And, Philippa Naylor, her machine quilting is absolutely superb.
PW: I know you are a great admirer, you’ve outlined a few quilters there, who are very much into hand quilting, you belong to an age when we are very much into machine quilting. Do you have any particular preferences one way or another?
GS: No I don’t. Now I’ve got my machine with the big ‘harp’, we call the hole between the needle and the end, the ‘harp’, I bought that to do machine quilting. I do enjoy machine quilting and I really get into it. I’m still practising, still practising different patterns but, I also enjoy hand quilting, I find it very relaxing. It’s a bit hot in the summer. Sitting under a quilt. I sit with it on my knee, I don’t have a quilt frame. I have a circular frame but not a big quilt frame, so I sit with it draped, lovely in the winter, draped on my knee, sewing away at the little bit that’s in my quilt frame which is 18 inches, I suppose, maybe 20 something like that.
PW: And what about longarm quilting?
GS: No. Don’t do it. I’ve had a go on a friend’s. I was absolutely hopeless at it. I don’t think I’d get any better because I don’t think I’d practise. I would certainly never ever send my quilts to anyone else, I’m really a bit precious about them, to anyone else to have them quilted. It has to be all my work. I am quite precious about my quilts. It is a case of practice. Machine quilting is a case of the more practice you do the better you get and I’m still working on it.
PW: That’s been really interesting and obviously you’ve contributed a lot to this discussion. The next bit to explore is really a more personal background basically about how important quilt making is to your life and also about your feelings? Is that OK?
PW: So basically, why is quilt making important to you and your life?
GS: It’s my hobby. I’m addicted to fabrics. I always thought actually a few years ago, that when I retired from teaching I would work in a quilt shop and I had a friend who had a quilt shop, a fabric shop, a patchwork and fabric shop. We had one where we used to live before and I always intended to go and help her but, in fact, by the time I retired I was so into quilting that, she didn’t get help I’m afraid. I find patchwork and quilting very relaxing, as I said earlier, I’m always amazed by what I produce ‘cos it always develops better than I think it will and so it’s relaxing, I can pat myself on the back which is terribly vain isn’t it but I’m afraid I do.
PW: I’m not sure we get many opportunities to do it so I think we should.
GS: Yes. And everyone says ‘that’s wonderful and that’s lovely so…’ It’s nice and just relaxation.
PW: And it’s interesting because one of the questions is also about the influence it has in the lives of women in particular and I wonder if you’d like to explore that a little more…
GS: Well historically particularly, it was necessity. Hopefully they got some pleasure from doing it, and I’m sure they did and I think that the way that women used to sit around chatting and quilting which is probably the way we should do it. This is why I have this little home group and we all sit around with our hand sewing. Even to the extent of making things by hand we would probably do otherwise on the machine. Just so we can sit and chat. We have made friendships through that way. So I think it’s important for friendship, for relaxation and also, we’re very conscious in this day and age of not letting your brain atrophy. It’s probably the thought that has to go into it, the planning and everything is probably very good for the brain.
PW: It certainly makes you concentrate on things you wouldn’t otherwise have done…
GS: Yeah and, if people, people…. I’m very fortunate that I haven’t had a very traumatic time at any period, but if you did have I think if I were in trouble I would get a lot of comfort from making my quilts.
PW: So, one of the questions is about the effect of community or region on your quilts. I mean, do you feel…?
PW: I was going to skip that one as I sort of guessed…
GS: Apart from my family. As I said earlier, when the children are old enough then I make them a quilt, and then I made one for my grandson, which you have seen, which was a huge guitar which took up the whole quilt because he’s into guitars. I do like to plan things around what the family likes.
PW: And it’s that sharing that’s important and gives everyone pleasure.
GS: I don’t make them to sell. I only give them away to family really because I’m slow, so I don’t make enough.
PW: Yes, one of the questions is what happens to the quilts you made? All those for friends and family so it’s very personal. Clearly linking it with family and the one that’s on your wall is a good example of that.
GS: Actually I have made some Linus quilts when I think about it. Yes, I don’t make a habit of doing that. I have made a few as time has gone on when I have got nothing else to do.
PW: So a final, sort of overall question really, looking at quiltmaking in the present day and I suppose specifically in the British Isles is, what do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?
GS: It depends upon the sort of quiltmaker you are really. Some people will have the challenge of actually finding a shop to actually supply their needs, their equipment, their fabric. If they’re like me and they hate buying their fabric on line because they can’t tell the colours. Some people have a big challenge actually designing the quilt or knowing what to do with the quilt and, if you’re going into putting things into shows, of course, is it going to be good enough for the show? That’s a challenge and, if you are making a living from it as some people do, that is probably the biggest challenge for those people because very few non-quilters will realise how long it takes to produce a quilt and so people who are charging for it, very few people will want to pay them the amount that they would need for it.
PW: So thank you very much for that Glenda. They’re pretty well all of the questions that I’ve gone through. Is there anything else you would particularly like to add, or you’d like to talk about?
GS: I don’t think so. I think you’ve pretty well covered everything, pretty much all I can think of. I can bore for England about quilting [laughter] I think we’ve probably covered everything you would want to know.
PW: Well thank you very much indeed and thank you for your time and thank you, again, for showing me all of your wonderful work. A real privilege. Thank you.