Betty Ford-Smith fell in love with pinecone quilting and learned the heirloom hand quilting technique from an African American master quilter, Miss Sue. She has captured the stories and process in her new book. She hopes to encourage more quilters to slow down and enjoy the process of creating hand made quilts that will last for generations.
How did you find yourself on a journey to explore and learn about pinecone quilts? From education to pinecone quilts – that’s quite a journey!
I was participating in a craft festival when a young woman showed me 2 quilts she had just purchased from a 92 year old woman. As soon as I saw the quilts I fell in love with them and decided I wanted to know how to make them. It turned out that I passed the home where the quilts were made and the sign that said “quilts for sale” for the past 5 years driving to the school board.
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My mother passed in 2003 and I was transferred at the same time to the County School District Office feeling sad and missing my mom. Then doors opened, and I had the opportunity to work with different people, learn new skills, teach and create, all at my finger tips. I became the Coordinator for Special Programs and Outreach, working with Special Education, Migrant Education, (ESOL) English Speakers of Other Languages, and all of the county art, music, science, and reading teachers as well as parent groups. My creative juices began to flow and all of a sudden my urge to create was unstoppable.
So, when I met Miss Sue, (Arlene Dennis) a 92 year old African American master quilter, I was very much ready to learn something new and teach others.
Tell us a bit about your mentorship with Miss Sue. How has the relationship with her influenced what you do today.
I spent six (6) years learning life lessons. Miss Sue taught me how to live alone as an elderly person, the importance of getting outdoors, how to get exercise through gardening, washing clothes and hanging them on a line, eating right, the importance of continuing to socialize, how to select fabric, needles, thread and different patterns for handmade quilts.
Today, I continue to try and find the used well worn sheets needed to make the base for pinecone quilts. Though many people tell me I could use a different needle and different thread, I still look for, as she did, the 3 inch long doll needles going from store to store and # 10 crochet thread to sew the cuckleburr quilts as she like to call them.
These full size quilts made in one large continuous circular pattern of folded material are hard to find and therefore, I keep making them because I do not want this pattern to disappear. The quilts cannot be made on a sewing machine but one can make small blocks and sew them together. But Miss Sue would say to me “child why would you want to go through all that trouble?” No matter the method, it takes patience and time to make a quilt. So, to continue to honor the traditional technique she taught me I continue to teach others the old fashioned way of making these quilts by hand. Two of my many students have completed full size quilts by hand but I continue to encourage the others.
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your new book, Pinecone Quilts: Keeping Tradition Alive, Learn to Make Your Own Heirloom?
Patience, time, and never giving up are the keys to success.
I original wrote a much shorter version of this book titled Miss Sue and the Pinecone Quilt for Miss Sue while she was alive and presented it to her. She was so happy and showed it to everyone who came to the house. When I tried to have it published it needed a lot more material.
Miss Sue passed away in 2010 and I never gave up trying to get the book published and trying to find out as much as I could about this style of quilting. Many readers may have their own stories about this heavy folded fabric pattern and I would love to hear them. People at workshops and exhibits always tell me about a grandmother or family member a longtime ago who used to make this pattern. Usually they were on such a large scale and many do not have a name for the pattern. There are other cultures who use a folded fabric technique but I focus only on this technique as it was passed down to me.
I would like for readers to remember there is still so much we can learn from our elders and ancestors. The world is discovering faster and easier ways to do everything with the help of technology. I want to help others relax a little, enjoy the quiet times and create something with love, from the heart, by hand, that may last a few generations for someone else to discover and enjoy.
Share with us a bit about the tradition of pinecone quilts. What were the challenges of the makers to find the fabrics for the pieces?
Pinecone, pineburr and cuckleburr quilts were used to keep people warm on cold nights especially before we had indoor heating systems. Years ago most families had only a fireplace and a pot belly stove. In fact, I remember visiting my great grandmother in Camden, South Carolina for Christmas. My brother and I would place our PJ’s on the pot belly stove to warm them up, jump into them and into the bed. We would also warm up a blanket to go to the outhouse at night.
My great grandmother did not have a house filled with blankets and quilts. Quilts were made from left over worn out clothes, curtains, aprons and scraps of found fabric. When she would have enough scraps, she would give it to someone to make a quilt. I remember seeing those colorful tied quilts that looked like a bunch of rags tied on a base the way a ribbon is tied on braids.
How do you select fabrics for your contemporary pinecone quilts?
I go into a fabric store, stand back and try to take in all the colors at once, while waiting for a few to jump out and grab my attention. I pull 3 to 6 bolts of fabric and then select other patterns and colors to blend with the original selections. I do not buy all that I need at once. I buy 3 yards of each bolt to get started. Upon leaving the store I usually have at least 12 different fabric selections to start my project.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I do not have a sewing room, so my space is my living room. I lay the fabric on the floor to select the order, I adjust it several times and then I take pictures. I found by taking pictures of the work in progress I can see the blending of the colors much better and see if my design works. Then I start cutting fabric squares, enough for at least 3 to 6 rows while sitting on the couch. The fabric is all around me at this point, since I am doing all this in my lap. Sometimes, the squares are 5 inches, or 3 inches depending on what I am making.
What are the indispensable tools needed for making pinecone quilts? Is there anything designed for another use that you use for making these quilts?
I like to use a 3-1/2 inch doll needle for sewing the pinecone quilts. This is the same type of needle Miss Sue used. The spring action Fiskar scissors for cutting my squares work best for me. The spring action scissors keep my hands from getting so tired. I tried rotary cutting but it was not as satisfying and it hurts my hands after just a few minutes. Plus I had to stand up to put enough pressure on the blade to go through 6 layers of fabric. The idea is to stay in one spot and work from your lap.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
The TV is on when I work because my husband is in the room most of the time while I am sewing. Unless it is early in the morning, then I have a few moments alone and can sew in silence.
My husband enjoys my sewing while he watches all kinds of sporting events, cooking shows, house hunting shows, game shows and the news. After 5 hours or more of what he wants to watch I might ask can we watch a movie now? But it has to be something I can follow by mostly listening. If I have to look up it interferes with my sewing and sometimes I stick myself with the needle!
What do you do to keep yourself motivated and interested in your work?
I buy a lot of quilt books, quilt magazines, watch You Tube tapes, follow some quilters on Instagram and look at unique quilt ideas on Pinterest.
If you could interview a creative person (past or present), who would that person be? What is it about that person that intrigues you?
Alma Thomas’s color circles and her use of color in the circle designs fascinate me. I would love to know how that idea came to her and if she saw it in nature or in a quilt pattern.
The Faith Ringgold story quilts are also a favorite. I love her use of African design around some of the story quilts and would love to discuss her trip to West Africa in the 70’s and how it changed her life.
Do you think that creativity is part of human nature or is it something that must be nurtured and learned?
I believe that creativity is something that is part of human nature but it needs to be nurtured and developed. It is hard to push someone into being creative. I hear people say all the time they are not creative but I think they just have not yet found the activity or work where they can find and use their creative side.
My parents always wanted my brother to develop an interest in some type of sport or instrument. They pushed him into every sport and he tried several instruments. He could play the piano by ear but was not interested. He was tall and could play basketball, baseball, football, run track, swim but was not interested. He even went to summer sports camps but did not enjoy it. He had drumming lessons, trumpet lessons, guitar lessons and still nothing would get his creative juices going. He was also very smart but hated school. He found joy and used his creativity by telling stories, writing stories and talking to people to find out their stories. Sadly, he died at 58 before he fully realized his real talent and creativity.
I, on the other hand, enjoyed every activity my parents pushed on me which included, tap dancing, ballet dancing, jazz dancing, piano lessons, horseback riding, modeling, ice skating, swimming, Broadway shows, Radio City Music Hall productions, YMCA summer day camp and shopping for jewelry in antique shops. Maybe, I was over stimulated because people would always say to me, “you do not know what you want to do”! But, I am never bored and can always find something creative to do or create something.
When was the first time that you remember realizing that you are a creative person?
I was in 4th grade in the basement at home playing with a science kit. I mixed some ingredients and thought I had created pink ink!
What traits, if any, do you think that creative people have as compared to people who are not creative?
Creative people are often very curious, observant, spend time thinking about how something can be improved or remade with a new twist, ask a lot of questions and do not get much sleep.
How have other people supported or inspired you?
My biggest supporters are bloggers who have allowed me to know what their readers thought of my work. Supporters have shown my quilts in museum exhibits, including The National Quilt Museum, International Quilt Museum, Texas Quilt Museum, South Florida State College, and Museum of Florida History. Other supporters encouraged me every week for 8 years to finish writing the book which was eventually published by C&T Publishing. My husband, cousins and some close friends also encourage me weekly.
I am still inspired everyday by Alma Thomas’s work- teacher and artist, Faith Ringgold- teacher, artist and quilter, Betye Saar- artist and visual storyteller (96 at the time of this writing), Gee’s Bend Quilters, Rachael Daisy- Australian quilter and author of Whizz Bang, Katell Renon- French blogger, author and her Bee’s, Mary Kerr- appraiser, quilter, author of Southern Quilts and collector, Dr. Kristin Congdon- retired professor, author, and collector, Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi- quilter, author and collector, Roxane Cerda- editor, writer, mom and cat lover, Mary Seigfreid- 92 year old neighbor (at the time of this writing)- writer, artist, quilter and collector and finally Miss Sue- the 92 year old who taught me how to make the Cuckleburr/Pinecone Quilt.
I am crazy about and completely taken by creative active people over 90 still making art, exhibiting and still collecting. They are simple amazing.
Do you lecture or teach workshops?
Yes, I love to lecture and I still do workshops in person or on zoom
How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
I can be reached through my website on the contact page https://pineconequilts.com/contact-betty-ford-smith/
Tell us about your blog and/or website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
https://pineconequilts.com/ is my website. I hope people will learn a little about me, how I got started and view close-up photos of many of the quits I have completed and shown in museums.
Interview posted June 2023
Browse through more quilting inspiration on Create Whimsy and check out our article on How to Make a Pine Cone Quilt. You might also enjoy reading our interview with Racheldaisy Dodd, who also makes pine cone quilts.