Interview with Viola Williams Canady, July 6, 2004

Quilt Alliance
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00:00:11 - Favorite quiltmaking techniques

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Partial Transcript: We are continuing Viola Canady's interview two years later. This is July 6th, 2004, and we are at the Calvary Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.

Segment Synopsis: Salinger introduces her interview as a continuation of the practice interview she did with Canady in 2002. She points out that Canady often works with strip piecing and the stained glass technique, which they discussed in their first interview. Salinger asks what other techniques Canady uses. Canady also likes to work with Trapunto and the Cathedral Window pattern. She also likes working with scraps and making scrap quilts. When she was a child, she was given scraps of fabric to sew together. Because of this, she prefers quilts that use scraps with many different colors.

Keywords: Calvary Episcopal Church; Cathedral window - quilt pattern; Fabric - Multiple scrap; Scrap quilts; Techniques; Trapunto quilts; Washington, D.C.

Subjects: African American quiltmakers; Quiltmakers--United States

00:02:45 - Typical quilt sizes, imagery, and inspirations

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Partial Transcript: Now do you make mostly large quilts, or wall-hangings, or when did you?

Segment Synopsis: Canady started out making large quilts and quilt tops. She sold quilt tops as a source of income and taught quiltmaking workshops. After she sold her first Cathedral Window quilt for $3,000, someone asked Canady to make quilts that more people could afford. She then started making smaller wall hangings. Salinger mentions that there are many African women depicted in Canady's wall hangings. Canady replies that she incorporates women, men, angels, and other inspiring images into her quilts. Canady prefers to learn by looking at a project and figuring it out intuitively, rather than by using patterns or reading instructions.

Keywords: Cathedral window - quilt pattern; Quilt Purpose - Personal income; Teaching quiltmaking; Wall hangings

00:05:36 - Making clothing / Sewing for President Kennedy's funeral

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Partial Transcript: When I was making people's dresses and things, I did not want to read those patterns.

Segment Synopsis: Canady did not like reading patterns, but she was good at designing and making clothing. Canady used to copy dresses for customers and sew similar designs for them. Canady describes creating clothing and partial uniforms for the Army. She remembers making the first pants designed specifically for women in the Army, which were worn by two female members of the marching band at President Kennedy's funeral. She also made black covers for the instruments that the band used and helped to cover the caisson. Finishing all of the special sewing work for the funeral required spending most of the weekend at Fort Myer following President Kennedy's assassination. She finished making the pieces at 4:00 in the morning. Months after the funeral, Canady was able to keep one of the tassles from the president's caisson.

Keywords: Army uniforms; Funeral decorations; President John F. Kennedy; Sewing; U.S. Army

Subjects: Fort Myer (Va.); Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963

00:11:23 - Other work for the Army

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Partial Transcript: But I did a lot of work for the Army, but when I was working at Fort Myer, I did lots of things.

Segment Synopsis: While Canady was working for the Army at Fort Myer, she made a lot of different things. Among them was a flag she made for General Westmoreland "for a savings bond drive in Vietnam." She received an award and a certificate from General Westmoreland for making the flag. Canady tells a story about an event at the Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, where she was expecting the Army band to perform. The band had to cancel because Operation Desert Shield occurred on the same day. The Army sent the United States Color Guard from Fort Myer to perform at the event instead. Canady believes that the Army sent a group to the event as a way of honoring her work. The Charles Sumner School event had 300 attendees over two days. Canady was also awarded a medal that had not been previously awarded to a civilian.

Keywords: Sewing; U.S. Army; United States Color Guard

Subjects: Charles Sumner School (Washington, D.C.); Fort Myer (Va.)

00:15:52 - Smithsonian Folklife Festival

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Partial Transcript: But the Sumner thing, I was asked, and I don't know how I got asked to do the Folklore of, the Festival on the Mall that just closed, Folklife, Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Segment Synopsis: One year after forming the Daughters of Dorcas quilt group in 1980, Canady was asked to participate in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. They were interested in featuring a quilter from North Carolina who had learned quiltmaking from family members. She worked at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival for ten days, with help from Smithsonian volunteers and other Daughters of Dorcas members. Approximately one million people attended the festival that year. Part of Canady's job involved talking to members of the press each day, including Russian media and journalists from international outlets.

Keywords: Quilt shows/exhibitions; Russia; Teaching quiltmaking

Subjects: Charles Sumner School (Washington, D.C.); Smithsonian Folklife Festival

00:18:28 - Charles Sumner School exhibition

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Partial Transcript: But how I got to Sumner, one of the men was down there with his grandchildren, at the Smithsonian.

Segment Synopsis: As a result of Canady's participation in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, she was asked to do an exhibit at the Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives in Washington, D.C. The Charles Sumner School asked her to show all of her work. She filled one room with her work and displayed a few additional pieces in the hallway. Canady says the exhibit was shown for about three months. While it was on display, people kept asking her to make quilts that were similar to those in the exhibit. As a result, Canady was able to make additional money from the event.

Keywords: Quilt Purpose - Exhibition; Quilt Purpose - Personal income; Quilt shows/exhibitions

Subjects: Charles Sumner School (Washington, D.C.); Smithsonian Folklife Festival

00:21:25 - Wall hanging for the Charles Sumner School

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Partial Transcript: Starting again. We were just at the point that you had the Sumner School Exhibit, and I was wanting to know how you did, how you came about doing that big wall hanging for the Sumner School.

Segment Synopsis: After her exhibition at the Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, Canady agreed to make a large wall hanging of the building for them. Because of the historical nature of the project, she charged them a lot less than the quilt was worth. Canady had a lot of trouble matching fabric colors to the colors of the building. She often got frustrated with the work and put it aside for a while, at least in part because of its large size (90 x 100 in.) To make the project more manageable, she divided the wall hanging into six pieces, with the centerpiece being the seventh. Canady had some problems putting the pieces together, but she was able to solve them by moving pieces and using extra fabric from the margins. The wall hanging was professionally framed by framers who also worked for the White House. Canady revises the number of people who attended the dedication ceremony, saying 500 people attended the event over two days, including government officials. Canady was able to personally invite fifty people to attend. Salinger adds that the event received coverage in the Quilter's Newsletter magazine.

Keywords: Quilt Purpose - Exhibition; Quilter's Newsletter Magazine; Richard L. Hurlbut; Techniques

Subjects: Charles Sumner School (Washington, D.C.)

00:32:09 - Other commissioned work

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Partial Transcript: Did you have other commissioned works that you did?

Segment Synopsis: Canady did other commissioned projects for private individuals. She was also asked to do a similar wall hanging for the Franklin School, but she was not able due to medical issues. When asked about the history of the Charles Sumner School, Canady says that it was the first school for Black children in Washington, D.C. It was built about the same time as the Franklin School, which was for White children. According to a story that Canady heard, the city did not want to pay the architect, Adolf Cluss, for building the Charles Sumner School, because they wanted him to make a less impressive building for Black students. [Note: The architect is not identified by name on the tape, but is in the transcript.] Approximately two years later, the Charles Sumner School building won an award, which embarrassed the United States into paying the architect. The historical background of the building is why the Charles Sumner School was converted into a museum. Canady discusses the process of having the wall hanging for the Charles Sumner School framed. It is important to Canady that the frame is shown in pictures of the wall hanging, because it honors the labor and cost involved with the framing process.

Keywords: Franklin School; Quilt Purpose - Exhibition; Quilt purpose - Cultural Education; Richard L. Hurlbut

Subjects: Charles Sumner School (Washington, D.C.); Cluss, Adolph, 1825-1905

00:38:25 - Notable Daughters of Dorcas members

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Partial Transcript: Now, I'm going to ask you a few other things here, in the few minutes we have left. Well, you have a lot of promising members of your Daughters of Dorcas and some sons. Can you talk about some of the people who have passed through this group in the last 25 years that you've been here?

Segment Synopsis: Canady lists a number of women and men who have been affiliated with the Daughters of Dorcas, including Virginia Quinn, Raymond Dobard, Roy Mitchell, Jr., Selma Lee, Vivian Hoban, Gertrude Braan, and Joyce Nixon. Salinger specifically asks about the original charter members of the group. At the time of the interview, only Canady and one other Daughters of Dorcas charter member, Isabelle Clifford, were still living. The six charter members had a project where they exchanged quilt blocks and each member made a quilt. Clifford still has the blocks that she received, and Canady encouraged her to finish making the quilt, because it would feature the work of the original charter members.

Keywords: Daughters of Dorcas; Gertrude Braan; Isabelle Clifford; Joyce Nixon; Quilt groups; Roy Mitchell, Jr.; Selma Lee; Virginia Quinn; Vivian Hoban

Subjects: Dobard, Raymond G.

00:43:23 - Family's support of quiltmaking / Teaching quiltmaking

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Partial Transcript: Okay. Um, I'd like to ask you how has your family been affected by your interest in quilts. Any way in particular? Are they supportive?

Segment Synopsis: Canady's family is supportive of her quiltmaking, primarily because she loves it. She credits quiltmaking with helping to improve her health after retiring from the government. Her husband helps babysit their grandchildren, which gives Canady more time for quiltmaking and teaching. Canady taught classes at different National Quilting Association chapters, including in Bowie, Maryland, at the University of Maryland, and in Pennsylvania. Teaching quiltmaking classes did not pay very much, but it allowed Canady to sell quiltmaking kits and patterns. She also taught at the Anacostia Museum in Washington, D.C. Teaching was a good way for Canady to meet other people, some of whom went on to become members of the Daughters of Dorcas. Gertrude Braan was the first Black student who attended one of Canady's classes.

Keywords: Cathedral Window (quilt pattern); Etta Portlock; Family; Gertrude Braan; National Quilting Association; Teaching quiltmaking; Windrich Gallery

Subjects: Anacostia Community Museum; Quilting--United States--patterns

00:48:30 - What makes a great quilt

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Partial Transcript: Just a couple more questions. I wanted to ask you, when you look at quilts made by other people, what do you consider is a great quilt? What makes a quilt great?

Segment Synopsis: Canady says that her first consideration is whether a quilt is straight or not. She also looks at the quilting and piecing. In Canady's opinion, a great quilt is "a quilt of many colors." Because of Canady's background in not only sewing clothing, but also working with bedspreads and draperies, the way something hangs is really important to her. She also sewed the uniforms for the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which, for ceremonial reasons, are expected to fit particularly well. Because of her experience working with military uniforms, Canady says she is is especially critical of men's clothing. Salinger also notes that Canady at one point made quilted jackets and clothing. She enjoys making clothing but is exacting.

Keywords: Aesthetics; Quilt designs; Scrap quilts; Sewing; Techniques; Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; U.S. Army

Subjects: Arlington National Cemetery (Arlington, Va.)

00:53:45 - Quilting in the lives of African American women

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Partial Transcript: I had one more question. I was going to ask you the place of quilting in the American, the African American, woman's life.

Segment Synopsis: In Canady's family, quilts were made for warmth, due to the lack of other affordable options. Her family saved fabric scraps, which were often left over from sewing or piecing quilts for wealthier women, and they eventually used those scraps to make utility quilts. If a quilt became too worn, it was washed and used as the inside of another quilt. Canady talks about being thrilled to have even the scraps, because it gave her access to a wider range of colors than she would otherwise have. She also tells a story about a customer giving her mother a box full of new fabric for her own use. That cloth was used to make quilts that their family only brought out when they had guests.

Keywords: Fabric stash; Quilt Purpose - Personal income; Quilt purpose - Utilitarian; Scrap quilts

Subjects: African American quiltmakers