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Interview: Quilting and Midlife Renewal


Dr. Marybeth Stalp

Many – far too many – aspects of life which should also have been experienced lie in the slumber-room among dusty memories; but sometimes, too, they are glowing coals under grey ashes. – Carl Jung

In Quilting: The Fabric of Everyday Life (Berg Publishers), sociologist Marybeth Stalp opens a window on quilting as both art and craft. And she illuminates midlife for women as a time of growth and change.

Stalp spent four years exploring why and how women quilt. She interviewed scores of middle-aged quilters and talked to practitioners in homes, church halls, fabric stores, small-group gatherings and quilting shows across the United States. What she discovered is quilting can change women’s lives.

AHB reached Dr. Stalp at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Ruth Dempsey: So how did you catch the quilting bug?

Marybeth Stalp: I grew up on a farm in Nebraska, the second oldest of six girls. My mom taught me to sew when I was six. Soon after, I joined the 4-H club and took sewing lessons for a number of years. In fact, I had developed advanced sewing and tailoring experience before I learned about quilting.

Aunt Jenny, my dad’s sister, taught me how to quilt one summer when I was home from college. Like many outsiders, I initially thought quilting would be easy, especially given my extensive sewing background. I was wrong; quilting is a demanding art form, requiring knowledge of colour and design.

RD: Does quilting attract a certain type of person?

MS: It attracts many types of people from a broad spectrum of society. For the book, I ended up just interviewing women who quilted “for fun”. These women were not trying to make a living from quilting, so the fun component was what they had in common.

RD: Some women hid their quilting activity from others, at first . . .

MS: Women in traditional family situations may have several reasons to do this. A woman may simply want to try it out and see if she likes it. There are also some negative “fuddy duddy” stereotypes that go along with quilting (and knitting and crochet), so they may downplay their activity to avoid misunderstanding and ridicule. Also, they may hide their quilting to avoid being asked to mend clothes or make things that do not interest them.

RD: Others found it difficult to find a quilting space . . .

Marybeth C. Stalp, 1991

MS: Most homes are not set up for individual leisure space. Some homes have been built to include a workshop that is more likely to be used by men than women. There are shared family spaces like the family room or the TV room, where family members gather to relax and visit, or watch TV and play video games, or whatever. But few homes are designed to give women their own personal space.

RD: The quilting group seemed to offer individuals a “safe place” to share skills, and work out their evolving stories . . .

MS: I suppose a quilting group could be thought of as safe space in that it’s a group of people with common interests and it can be a place for support. Quilters, especially new quilters, were likely to pick up new techniques. They were also likely to find tips for dealing with family and friends not open to the newly-minted quilter.

RD: I loved the photos in the book, so what’s with Sarah and all those frogs?

MS: Sarah’s quilt is unique in that it has multiple meanings. I typically show pictures of the frog quilt when I give talks about my research. I show the quilt and ask the audience to guess the story behind the quilt who made it and for whom. The audience often guesses the quilter was a fan of nature or frogs. They also guess that the quilt was made for a child or frog lover.

But Sarah’s frog quilt is about failed romance; she was tired of dating and decided to stop for a while. In the meantime, she bought a bunch of frog fabrics to create this quilt, which is a statement of her dating life (akin to the fairy tale The Princess and the Frog, Sarah felt she was just dating frogs, but no princes).

Sarah was in the midst of making the quilt when she met her now-husband. They flew to Las Vegas to get married and after the wedding they went to a quilt shop, where Sarah bought her last frog fabric to complete the quilt. The point of the story is that each quilt contains many stories. We often miss out on the story of the quiltmaker.

RD: You write, “Quilts act as vehicles of memory, bookmarking women’s lives.” How so?

MS: Maybe I can give you an example. One of my favourite quilt stories is about a quilt commemorating the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, U.S.A. The woman had made the quilt for a project that gifted finished quilts to each participating country in the Olympic Games, that year.

When I asked her about the quilt, she surprised me. Rather than talk about the group of quilters that worked on the project or that she was part of an international relations gesture involving the Olympic Games, she told me that making the quilt had coincided with her decision to quit smoking. Her family had been asking her to quit for some time. So today, when she looks at the picture of the quilt, she sees her personal victory over smoking, and, of course, the Olympic Games.

The point is that quilts can mean something to the maker that might not be obvious to others. Along the same line, quilts made over the course of a lifetime are likely to reflect life’s ups and downs. So on the downside, women have shared divorce quilts, breast cancer quilts and other mourning quilts. And on the upside, they have shared quilts celebrating births, birthdays, graduations, weddings and anniversaries.

RD: Some of the women created personal legacies. They documented their finished quilts in journals, portfolios and photo albums . . .

MS: That’s right, some women kept elaborate records of their quiltmaking: others just took photos. But most of the women gave their quilts away as gifts.

Marybeth C. Stalp, 2000

The research showed that it is important for women to sign and label their quilts, so that those receiving the quilts will have a record of its maker. Also, keeping records can result in a great sense of creative accomplishment for quilters and provide inspiration for future quilters.

And, of course, it will be important someday to have a historic record of the range of work accomplished by women quilters in the late 1900s and early 2000s.

RD: I was struck by how quilting opened up new worlds for women. It allowed them to create new versions of self and to add new chapters to their life story.

MS: Certainly, developing a creative life and quilting identity was important for many of the women. Many women in traditional situations choose to devote the bulk of their time to the family. As children grow up and leave home, they have more time to explore their creative selves. Some of the women discovered their voice through the medium of quilt.

RD: What was the most surprising thing you learned about quilting?

MS: I was surprised to find a leisure activity like quilting causes tension in the home. While it’s true, some continue to view quilting stereotypically as something old ladies do, quilting can enhance and change women’s lives.

The new activity challenged long-established routines and family dynamics. For example, the women would joke about spending more time on quilting and less time on housework and cooking.

I like to think that quilting can challenge and enrich the family and that it can help women to become more comfortable with their creative selves.

RD: So what song would work as the soundtrack of your quilting life?

MS: There are a few: Head Over Heels by the Go-Go’s, Celebration by Kool and the Gang and Waterloo and Dancing Queen by ABBA.