ID Number: TQ.2015.033
Name of interviewee: Dorothy Stapleton
Name of interviewer: Jan Godding
Name of transcriber: Take1
Location: Dorothy’s home
Address: Leatherhead, Surrey
Date: 16 September 20016
Length of interview: 0:26:40
Dorothy made her ‘Freedom from Housework’ quilt using household textiles including J-cloths and tea towels, as well as fabric depicting 50s style women doing chores. She made the quilt for a competition and it went on to be displayed around the world. Dorothy liked to design her quilts to show her humour and spent many years doing exhibitions and talks about her quilts but has since moved on to making collages.
Jan Godding [JG]: Good morning. It’s the 16th of September 20016, 9.50am, and I’m interviewing Dorothy Stapleton in her home in Leatherhead in Surrey. Good morning Dorothy. Thank you very much for um talking to us again.
Dorothy Stapleton [DS]: Morning Jan.
JG: We’ve got the quilt in front of us, and it would be really nice to hear from you how you chose this quilt and what it means to you.
DS: Yes. Well, to describe it a bit…
JG: [Laughs] Yeah.
DS: …it’s rather a busy quilt. Um it was the Husqvarna Viking first competition, and they sent, I think it was probably in the magazines or maybe I got an email, saying they had this competition, and it was a worldwide thing and the subject was Feel Free. And it said feel free to do anything you like to do, crazy things with your quilts, and I thought it sounded a bit up my street. The, the rules were it had to be a metre-square, and I’m not very good at getting straight edges, so I decided to have wobbly edges purposefully on my quilt.
DS: So I decided to call it Freedom From Housework, because I did a quilt many years ago called I Hate Housework, and it was made with bits of dishcloths and um various tea towels, goodness knows what, labels from clothes. And um I was getting a bit cross that people were only using special fabrics and I thought that quilting was about make do and mend…
JG: Ah, right.
DS: …and I wanted to use anything I could lay my hands on, and that caused a bit of a stir, and so this was about ten years later I decided to make this new houseworky type quilt.
JG: So which year was this?
DS: This was um, oh crumbs um, 19…
DS: Uh no it was 2001.
JG: 2001, right.
DS: So I decided to have a cab… One of the… Two of the, the bits it’s all appliquéd on to a background, and there’s a lot of free machine writing on it, and all kinds of bizarre fabrics; I’ve included J-cloths, I’ve got old buttons that were the kind of Liberty bodice buttons, [laughs] I’ve got um the rubber ones.
JG: Uh, no, no, they’re not the rubber ones, they’re sort of fabricy.
DS: Right. Um I’ve got teacups. I’ve got some extraordinary fabric I bought when I was in America teaching at the Houston Festival one year, and it’s got 1950’s housewives with their equipment, so they’ve got vacuum cleaners and um a fridge, and they’re pointing at them as if they’re something absolutely weird and uh clever, so that’s what made me do one of the calendars. It’s a sort of like a calendar of events. So one of them’s 1950 one, and one of them is 2001, which was the, the, the year I made it. Do you want me to read out what’s on it or not?
JG: No, that’s fine because I took pictures of it, yes.
DS: Oh right. Okay, fine.
JG: So, calendar of events all through the time, right.
JG: It’s extremely colourful but restrained at the same time. It’s very unusual.
DS: Oh, do you think so?
DS: The organisers said when it was on view that the, the competition, the final or the… they wrote to me and said, ‘You have won the Sense of Humour Award,’ which I didn’t even know there was one, um, [laughs] and they said uh, ‘We would like to invite you to Barcelona to receive your prize of a Husqvarna Viking top of the range machine, and we will pay you and your husband’s air fare and hotel bill,’ which was very nice. But unfortunately, or fortunately, I had… I was teaching at the festival, so I’d already booked our hotel and our, and our air fare, but they did actually pay it all and we had a grand um sort of um giving… Well, they didn’t actually give me, me the machine then, they gave me a big bunch of flowers, and I collected or they delivered the machine um from a local shop and I had to go to Wimbledon to have a day of how to use it, which was very nice.
DS: So um yeah so I was really lucky.
JG: A jolly good prize.
DS: Yes. No, it was great! And then the Quilts For A Year went all ’round the world so and they did a book of it as well, a book, a sort of book thing, so it was a good um, you know, it was very nice to know that my quilt had been to places like Japan and places in America I’d never been to. And when I got it back it was in perfect condition so that’s good.
JG: Mmm. Right. And where does it live now?
DS: Well normally it lives in my studio. But last summer I did the open studios…I now do quite a lot…I’m not quilting anymore in fact, but I do a lot of collage and printing and painting, so the wall that it normally lives on has been taken up with some pictures which I haven’t got ’round to removing yet, so it will go back in there. And because there’s a big picture window, when you drive in the drive you can see it through the window and it’s quite bright [laughs].
JG: Mmm. That’s lovely. Right. Um you, you chose this one. Why, why this particular one because you actually were quite a prolific quilter with lots of other…?
DS: Yes. Um I suppose it’s because it’s, it, it probably demonstrates the things that I like doing, which are a bit wacky, uh a bit silly, um and with little uh word quips of, of silly things like, ‘Sorry darling, I can’t iron your shirts, I’ve cut them up,’ and all that kind of thing, [laughs] so. And I just like the, the… Because it’s not too big, and, I don’t know, it’s got quite a lot of memories and I just thought it was a, a nice quilt. [JG: Okay.] And also, even though the edges aren’t straight, I seem to have done the binding that is not too horrendous…
JG: The binding looks lovely.
DS: …and the top I’ve got prairie points made of J-cloths, [laughs] but that’s because when I actually measured it it was an inch too short for the requirements, so I had to enlarge it by having them sticking up on the top.
JG: Yes. But it actually is lovely, you know…
DS: Oh, thank you.
JG: …the prairie points and um J-clothes [laughs]. Brilliant. And the binding is super-duper.
DS: Oh, good.
DS: It turns out you could get different coloured J-cloths and June Barnes, one of the quilters, gave me purple ones which apparently you could get in East Sussex which I’d never seen around here so [laughs], I’ve got lots of J-cloths in my wor…, in my kitchen cupboard with holes cut out of them now [laughs].
JG: Yeah. Right, you said that you don’t make quilts anymore, but uh what did [even] start you off right at the beginning?
DS: I think originally, I mean years and years ago it was when my… 52 years ago when my son was born I made a little baby quilt, um and that was…I didn’t really know what I was doing, I just chopped up bits of old clothes and made a little quilt. And then um I s… I went, I sort of did colla… quite a lot of collage in those days when the children were very young, and then when I came to live in Leatherhead, which was 47 years ago, a friend and I decided to go to Margaret Jordan’s… [JG: Ah] quilting class which was in Dorking, and it was American quilting, so you made the blocks, and um we, we got hooked. And then we started making little quilts and I particularly got hooked on Log Cabin. And then this friend of mine, who’s now moved to Devon, had a stall in Covent Garden Craft [laughs] Market, and we used to make little quilts and cushions and things and sell them. And then the Evening Institute asked me if I’d teach quilting, I was teaching various handicraft things, and then it sort of took off a bit. And then my late husband was a surveyor, and we had an office at home, and while he was out and about on, on um building sites and things I had to man the phone at home and pretend it was an office, so I was able to do lots of quilting ’cause I never went anywhere. And then gradually I exhibited at a c… at the patchwork shows and things, and then I was asked to do talks to patchwork groups, and then I wrote a couple of books and did a couple of videos, and then it became like a full-time, well not a full-time job but it was like a major undertaking. And I think people liked it ’cause the quilts were funny so [laughs], and also I never ever sold them so I had this big stock of quilts I could take to the groups…
JG: Ah, yeah.
DS: …instead of slides. But then it got more complicated. I went to Norway a couple of times, I went to Houston a couple of times, and then I went six weeks to Australia and um had an exhibition at the Sydney um Exhibition Centre and went to lots of different places in Australia on the train and plane, with all these wretched quilts in a big [laughs] bag. So … so then my husband wanted to retire, and I said, ‘Well I can’t stop doing this ’cause I’ve got bookings two years ahead.’ But I worked through my bookings and then decided to say, ‘Right, that’s it, I’ve done it for 22 years, I’m, you know, I’m giving up, and just want to do, just quilt maybe a little bit for pleasure.’ And then sadly he died about six months later of a rare heart condition, so I was really glad that I had given it up because it was a sort of two-man show; he used to come and drive and all the ladies said, ‘Oh, you poor thing, I bet, I bet you never get a square meal,’ and all this kind [laughs] of thing, and he lapped it up, he loved it. So really then I started doing collage and painting and things I’d done years ago when I went to art school, yeah.
JG: Yeah, so still really creative and making…
0:11:25 DS: Yes, so… Yes.
JG: …but just not quilts? Yes.
DS: No. And also I think the sort of scissor skills you get from quilting are very useful with collage [laughter].
JG: Yes. Were there any other quilters in your family or?
DS: No. Um. One of my sisters was a book illustrator, and I think the others can’t even sew; I’ve got three sisters. Um I think I was the only person that owned a sewing machine [laughs].
JG: It sounds as though they might have done other creative things.
DS: Uh yes, Marjorie my sister did um, she did this book illustration and she wrote some lovely books for children called Things That Grandma Made and Things That Gypsies Made and Things That… I can’t think what the… oh Sailors Made and they were things like um, it was like a how to do book but she’d done beautiful drawings and um, yeah, so. But, but they’re much, much older than me so now they’re sort of, you know, very well retired as it were so. But another sister doesn’t even put up a hem. You know she [laughter]…
JG: Right. Um but Margaret Jordan was obviously quite an influence in the area because a couple of people have mentioned her classes?
DS: Oh yes. Yes, yes, she was amazing.
JG: Yes. And you s… you talked early on about making… winning a top of the range machine. Did you always do mainly machine work?
DS: Initially I did… Um well after Margaret Jordan’s class I did the American blocks and made bed quilts, and then I made… Oh, it turned out in the end the beds got bigger and bigger which was a bit of a pain, but I made them for all my nieces and nephews for their wedding presents and 21st birthdays, and I made a big quilt which is still on my bed for our 25th wedding anniversary, and I made another um Dresden Plate quilt which is, and they were all hand sewn and hand quilted…
DS: …and I found that was very comforting sitting in the evening [laughs] with a quilt on your knee watching television.
JG: Yeah. And obviously the number you’ve made over the years must… with all the ones that you’ve given away to quite a large family it must be quite considerable?
DS: I suppose. Yes, I’ve probably made about 60 or 60-odd quilts. I mean obviously not that many bed quilts, maybe about 20 bed quilts, and, oh goodness knows how many wall quilts. But then when I decided to give up doing the shows and everything, at Sandown I had a little exhibition and sold I think about ten of them in aid of the Princess Alice Hospice. So um. And since then I suppose I’ve probably sold about three quilts which I felt I didn’t need [laughs]. Well I don’t really need any of them, they’re actually a lot of them don’t…
JG: Ah yeah, but some are more, more… some are…
DS: Yes, tenacious than others aren’t they?
JG: Yes [laughter].
DS: So basically in my loft I’ve got a sort of stack of these quilts, and goodness knows what the children will do when I peg out so [laughs].
JG: Right. Um, when you were quilting um you got a, a lot of inspiration you said from Log Cabin at the beginning…
JG: … and I remember a book where you did pictures with Log Cabin.
DS: Yes, I did lots of pictures with Log Cabin. Um I did houses and mountains [laughs], ’cause I undertook to do a book called Log Cabin and beyond which was all pictures from Log Cabin and then it was getting more and more difficult [laughs] to try and think of pictures. But I did a Scottish landscape with um all different bits of um… well tartan fabric basically, and I did quite a lot of Log Cabin on a base of gridded Vilene, which is brilliant because it’s it makes it very accurate.
DS: I started off doing John’s shirts. There’s actually one over here. Sorry um.
JG: Okay. Yes.
DS: Yes, which is minute but do you want me to bring it over or not?
JG: No, it’s…
DS: No. That’s liberty lawn.
JG: It is small.
JG: Right. When um you look, or you did look at other people’s quilts, what were you looking at really to suddenly think, ‘Mmm, that’s one I really…’
DS: Um. I suppose… I mean when I’ve been asked to judge the shows occasionally, that’s a big responsibility because I personally feel I don’t desperately like, like uh… uh lavender colours. But so then I thought, ‘Well maybe if it’s all done in lavender colours I should give it more marks because of [laughs] my personal dislike.’ But I suppose really it’s the composition and the colour, maybe the colour mainly, and yet on the other hand you can get really interesting quilts virtually in monochrome. I made one in black and white once, which was a big Log Cabin one; I called it Ghosts because I tie-dyed in reverse bits of black fabric in bleach, and it came out with these extraordinary um shapes, sort of it looked like looking in a fire and seeing pictures. And I had it up on the kitchen wall for quite a few years, and each time I sat down and was eating and looked at it you could see different things, so I, sort of quite like the idea, also with a quilt, that you look at it from a distance, you think, ‘Oh, I like that,’ and when you get near there’s almost something else to see, which…
JG: Mmm. Yeah, at Hever this year there was a very fussy-cut quilt which when people were close up to it they didn’t like at all…
DS: Oh really?
JG: …but from 30 feet away…
JG: …it was entirely different and they all kept coming back to it.
DS: Yes. Yes. And that’s like sometimes you can see a quilt and then you see a picture of it in a magazine and you think, ‘Wow, that looks amazing,’ because you’re being too close to it so you can’t see the colour balance, yeah.
JG: Yeah. And were there any particular quilters that you admired and liked their work?
DS: Um, oh yes I suppose quite a lot. I mean June Barnes did the most amazing quilt. Um. Trying to think um. Um, oh sorry [laughs]. It seems now such a long time ago. Um. Yes, I mean I do admire people who do absolutely exquisite traditional quilts even though that’s not really my thing. Um. I’m trying to think. Uh oh when I went to America to the Houston show I mean some of the, some of the things looked amazing, I mean Ricky Tims and people like that. But um, but some of them I felt were almost too photographic, for me, but you know that’s, that’s my preference.
JG: Yeah. Yes, there was a, a winner at The Festival of Quilts one year from Holland called Ted Storm…
DS: Oh, yes, yes.
JG: …who had replicated lace in black and white, and people thought the fabric behind was dyed. But it wasn’t, it was actually the shade of thread she’d used.
DS: Goodness me, yes, yes.
JG: And it was such a tour de force and I think we all went home and decided that, well perhaps we’ll take up a little light something now.
DS: Yes [laughs]. Oh Gloria um, oh goodness me.
JG: Oh, Loughman. Loughman.
DS: Gloria Loughman.
DS: She done amazing quilts and I actually stayed with her in Australia, and she drove me t… uh well her husband drove us for a whole day right across this very barren bit of Australia to a quilt um event, and she, she and her husband used to go in a campervan, and she would actually do quilts, um dye them with all these dyes actually in situ on bits of old stones and things. A really delightful lady and very, very clever. And I think she’d, she’d overcome quite serious illness and still was do… and I’m not sure she… I presume she’s still quilting.
JG: She’s still quilting in a big way, yes.
JG: Yes so she’s lasted a long, long, a long time.
DS: Yes. Yes. Yes. No, her quilts were absolutely superb.
JG: Right. And what are you going to do with the quilts that you’ve made now that you are storing in your loft as good insulation? [Laughs]
DS: I honestly don’t know! I mean in a way my son kept them saying, ‘Oh, you know, when you die they ought to go somewhere and all be exhibited,’ but you know what do I do with them? I mean, presumably people like The Quilters’ Guild don’t want them, and um I don’t know. Ho… Well hopefully they won’t go in a skip [laughs].
JG: I’m sure they won’t. If he… If they do I shall smack him myself.
DS: Yeah, yeah [laughter]. You’ll come around and look in the skip. Yeah.
JG: What do you think is the sort of biggest challenge though for quilters today?
DS: [Sighs] I suppose to be recognised as an art form. I mean well that’s if they want to, I mean you know if they are wall quilts and they’re meant to be like a pic… uh as… instead of a picture on the wall, to be recognised as such.
JG: Yes, that’s an ongoing…
JG: You just think sometimes you’ve done it and then suddenly you discover there’s a gallery where they’re hung up on a nail or something…
DS: Yes, yes.
JG: … and, and we’re back to square one again, yes.
DS: Yes. And also to be treated with reverence you know because they are fragile, and also they can fade and you know.
JG: And now that the um Quilters’ Guild Museum has closed…
DS: Oh, has it closed? I didn’t…
JG: It’s closed. It closed last…
DS: Oh no! Oh, goodness me, yes.
JG: … last autumn, yes. Not enough footfall.
JG: There isn’t actually anywhere obvious…
JG: … to um display quilts in the way that they need to be displayed.
DS: Yes, and also the trouble is that they are so large. I mean obviously the um American Museum at Bath has a very good way of displaying them, like a sort of book that you open pages and you fold them back, but you know that’s…
JG: And the other thing that that’s been a big change is the technology being used.
DS: Yes. Yes.
JG: Um. Some of the… The winner at um Festival of Quilts this year in the Traditional group was actually um a long-arm quilted [tablecloth]…
DS: Oh right. Yes.
JG: …and it’s very difficult when you’re hand quilting to see that the two things are the same.
DS: I d… Yeah, I personally feel that they should be in a completely different category; that you know, okay it must take skill, but it’s like really when I’ve done lots of free writing on my quilts. I’d heard people commenting at uh one of the shows and saying, ‘Oh no, she’s got a thing on her machine that does the writing,’ and I thought… I stood up, ‘No, I haven’t, I’ve done all that.’
JG: No, I haven’t.
DS: You know we… These things are skills that you learn…
DS: …but the long-arm quilting I’m not even sure how it works, but on the other hand I think that, you know, there should be a different category for hand quilting and long-arm quilting.
JG: But that is only one of the technologies I think that um … of the sewing machines these days. For one thing they’re a major investment.
JG: Um and they also do as many embroidery stitches like blanket stitch.
DS: Yes. Yes.
JG: I could never understand how they could possibly do that.
DS: No, no, because this Husqvarna one does. I used to do blanket stitch on my Bernina by doing a… I can’t remember what stitch it was but I did it upside-down or something [laughs] you know. ‘Cause I’ve done quite a lot of raw edged, raw edges and just holding them together with fancy stitches, but then partly I was making quilts with the fancy stitches to try and try out all these [laughs] different stitches. And now my nine-year-old granddaughter last week came and said, ‘Can I use your machine,’…
DS: …and so I said, a ‘Okay, right,’ you know and she thought it was brilliant, she was pressing buttons and but the modern child is used to [laughs] all these things.
JG: Yes and they have no fear.
DS: No. No. No. Mind you, when her brother got going on it he managed to gunge up the whole of the, the bobbin bit that I had [laughs] to take the machine apart virtually to do… sort it out.
JG: Yeah. But I think we’ve gone thr… past the um hump now of uh young people not doing any hand things so yes.
DS: It’s within the technology and the IT that goes with it.
DS: And also now um they’re doing fabrics at GCSE.
DS: One of my granddaughters did it. I gave her a lot of um my quilting fabric and she made some lovely long sort of like sausage cushion things with lots of embroidery and things on it so, yes I think you know young children and boys and girls you know are, are getting into it which is good.
JG: Yeah. I think sometimes boys think that they’re actually in a car…
JG: …and it’s foot down to the floor. [laughs]
DS: [Laughs] Yeah.
DS: I had an Elna Lotus machine and my son was making model boats and he used to make the sails and say, ‘It’s a Lotus,’ and he was zooming along [laughter]. It was a racing car.
JG: Yeah. And then obviously quiltmaking was very important in your life at one time and um you are still incredibly well-known if um…
DS: Do you think so? [Laughs]
JG: Oh yes. Oh yes. If, if, if um ever I mention your name uh somewhere like Hever…
JG: …the reminiscences that come out of having seen you, heard you, looked at your quilts from 20, 30 years back so that’s enormous!
DS: Oh, really? Oh, that’s wonderful! Oh, good! Yeah.
DS: Oh, well, [laughs] it wasn’t in vain. [laughter] I mean I thoroughly enjoyed it. I mean you know it was really nice and to hear all the people laughing and, you know, this kind of thing was great, yeah.
JG: Right, thank you very much Dorothy. Is there anything else that you’d like to um re… re…?
DS: Um. No, I don’t think so, but thank you very much for asking me and I’m sorry that I’m a bit of a fraud ’cause I’m not now a major quilter!
JG: But you’re one of the few that was and stopped and I think that’s really important that we pick, pick that up…
DS: Really? Yes.
JG: …as to why it happens because it does happen.
DS: And I suppose in a way I didn’t want to be sort of the old bird standing there thinking, ‘Oh no, not her again,’ you know? And people said, ‘You can’t retire,’ and I thought, ‘Well, through circumstances I did,’ and as it so happened I’m really glad I did because it would have been quite a difficult thing to go to different places and you know, and so you know now life’s opened up new opportunities with different forms of creativity so.
JG: Yeah. Thank you very much indeed.
DS: Right, thank you Jan.