Documenting Quilting: Model Questions for Interviews
By Susan Roach, Folklorist
Louisiana Regional Folklife Program
Louisiana Tech University
Folklorist Susan Roach documented the quiltmaking process and quilters in North Louisiana for her dissertation, The Traditional Quiltmaking of North Louisiana Women: Form, Function, and Meaning (University of Texas at Austin, 1986). Here she provides interview questions used to do in-depth comprehensive research on this one folk tradition. These questions were used in conjunction with the Louisiana Folklife Survey Form, which gathered appropriate biographical data. They may be modified to research other types of crafts as well.
From 1979-1984, I interviewed 44 quilters in 10 parishes in North Louisiana. My research goal was to document not only the aesthetics and technology of quilt production, but the functions and meaning of quilts and quiltmaking in a specific cultural context. To do this, I had to collect information about the quiltmaker, the quilt (the product), and quiltmaking (the process). To accomplish that goal, I designed a list of questions in the following categories: individual quilting history; reasons for quiltmaking; aesthetics; form, process, and techniques; and functions of quilts. I usually ask the questions in a fairly structured interview, with a conversational tone. Since I have a long family history of quiltmaking, I draw on that to give examples and to evoke further comments. Often I ask other follow-up questions as well, depending on the specific interview situation. Some women are able to verbalize more easily than others and may answer all the questions in a series with the first general question. For some respondents, I have to ask more questions. Such an interview might take up to two hours or more than one visit. Often, the respondents want to show me specific quilts during the interview, which I may photograph; of course, this takes more time and may lead to further questions about specific quilts.
These types of questions may be adapted for most traditional folk arts and crafts since we are trying to find out not only the technological means of production but also the aesthetic values, meaning, and function of both the production process and the product. For example, in an interview with a white-oak basketmaker to find out aesthetic dimensions, one might ask what makes a good basket or a pretty (nice-looking) basket. Answers may vary from sturdiness to strip width and detailing of handle application. To determine the functions of the basketmaking process, one might ask why and when the person makes baskets. To find the function of the basket itself (or the role it plays in the maker's life), one might ask what is done with the basket after it is made.
Individual Quilting History
l. How long have you been making quilts? Would you describe your learning process?
2. At what age did you begin to learn to sew? Do you remember at what age you began to piece? When did you learn to quilt? How old were you when you made your first quilt? Why did you learn at this particular time? Were there any special difficulties?
3. Were there special people or circumstances that encouraged you to begin to quilt? How did you learn to quilt? Who taught you to piece and to quilt? Did you have one special person you learned from, or were there others who influenced your quiltmaking? Where did they learn to quilt? Who else quilted in your family?
4. How many quilts have you made in your life? Are there any special times when you made more quilts? When did you make your last quilt? Did you make more quilts when you were younger? If so, why do you make fewer now? Do you make more quilts now? If so, why?
5. What other crafts do you practice? How does quilting compare with these?
6. When do you normally quilt? Time of day, year?
7. Do you belong to a quilters' guild or club? If so, for how long? What groups?
8. Do you know others who quilt in your community or parish?
Reasons for Quiltmaking
l. Why do you quilt? What does quilting give you?
2. Why do you spend so much time on such a craft?
3. Why do you enjoy quilting? What do you like most about it?
4. How do your family, friends, and community feel about your quiltmaking and your quilts?
5. What are your feelings about quiltmaking compared with other household activities?
l. What kind of quilts do you make? (Many people respond with types of quilts, such as everyday--or common--and fancy, rather than naming patterns.)
2. What kind of quilts do you like best? What kind of quilts do you like to make best? (If response led to terms such as pretty or fancy, then I would pursue these.)
3. What is a pretty or fancy quilt? What does it take to make a pretty quilt? How can you tell a pretty quilt?
4. What are your favorite quilt patterns? Why? Have you ever made these?
5. How do you decide on the colors and fabrics that go into your quilts? Do you ever use the colors recommended on patterns that you buy or see in books?
6. Where do you get your fabrics?
7. What are your favorite colors? Do you use them in your quilts? Why or why not?
8. Where do you get your patterns? (This might be modified to ask only about patterns for specific quilts that the woman showed.)
9. Do you ever alter your patterns? Why? Which ones? How?
10. Have you ever made up your own patterns? Where did you get your ideas?
11. Would you rather create your own pattern and color combinations or have a pattern to go by?
12. Have you ever used a commercial kit or pattern? Why did you use it? Where did you find it?
13. Do you ever use quilt books and magazines? Which ones?
Form, Process, and Techniques
l. What patterns do you make? Do you prefer pieced or appliquéd quilts? Why?
2. How do you do your piecing? Where do you usually work? When do you do your cutting of pieces?
3. What size quilts do you make? When do you decide exactly how big the quilt will be? What are the measurements? (Measure quilts if available; sketch or photograph if possible.)
4. What techniques do you use? Sewing machine, hand, combination? Why? Which technique is better? Why?
5. What materials do you like for batting and lining? What kind do you use? How do you determine what kind to use?
6. How do you do your quilting? Frames, hoop, on a bed, other? Why?
7. Where did you get your quilting frames?
8. Have you ever quilted on a machine? Would you now? Why or why not?
9. How do you quilt your quilts? What kind of stitching do you do? What quilting designs do you do? How do you choose your quilting design? How would you go about quilting a pieced top you were very proud of?
10. Do you ever have anyone quilt with you? Do you like for other people to quilt with you? Why or why not? Did you ever go to quilting bees? If so, describe them. Do people still get together to quilt around here? When, where, why? If you wanted help with your quilting, who would you ask? Why?
11. Have you ever quilted a top for anyone else? If so, do you do this often? Do you ever charge for this service? If so, do you mind telling me how much?
Functions of the Quilt
l. What do you do with the finished quilts?
2. Do you keep all your quilts? If so, how do you use quilts in your home?
3. Do you use quilts as bedcovers or bedspreads? Do you prefer quilts over blankets as bedcovers? Why or why not?
4. Do you give any of your quilts away? Under what circumstances would you give a quilt away? When have you used quilts as gifts for special occasions? If so, what occasions would merit a quilt? Who received them?
5. How do you feel about selling your quilts? Have you ever sold your quilts? Who buys them? How did you start selling them? Do you mind my asking how much you charge for them? Do you think that is adequate?
8. Where are quilts kept in your home? Why do you keep them in that space?
9. How do you take care of your quilts? Do you wash them? If so, how often and how? How do you feel about dry cleaning a quilt?
10. Have you ever received quilts as gifts? On what occasions? Do you still have them? What did you do with them?