ID Number: TQ.2014.008
Name of Interviewee: Pat Wills
Name of Interviewer: Glenda Smith
Name of Transcriber: Glenda Smith
Location: Glenda’s home
Address: Appleton Roebuck, York, Yorkshire
Date: 23 May 2014
Length of interview: 0:33:18
Pat chose to talk about her Seminole quilt that took her outside her quiltmaking comfort zone. As well as using a new technique and a new sewing machine for this quilt, Pat is relatively new to quilting. Pat talks about her interest in crafts and being inspired to try quilting when she became involved with The Quilt Museum in 2010. She talks about experimenting with Bondaweb, printing on fabric and having sewing bees with her grandchildren. In the last third of the interview, Pat talks about some of the exhibitions she has seem at The Quilt Museum, the work of particular quiltmakers and how important quiltmaking has become in her retirement.
Glenda Smith [GS]: My name is Glenda Smith and I am about to interview Pat Wills on behalf of the Talking Quilts project. Hello, Pat, you have brought a beautiful quilt along with you today, perhaps you would like to tell me about that.
Pat Wills [PW]: It was a project that was in Patchwork and Quilting magazine and it was to make, I don’t even know how you say the word, a seminole quilt and I liked the idea of it because it was quite precise and I am not a worker who is particularly precise so it took me out of my comfort zone and gave me a real challenge to do. The fabric, which is predominantly a purpley pink with orange and pink butterflies on, which sounds hideous, I bought in a shop in Great Missenden when I was on holiday with my grandchildren and I particularly liked the fabric because it was very striking and when I got it home I thought I have to do something with it and it seemed to lend itself to the particular project and I happened to have enough fabric in my stash to be able to match it with the butterflies. It was quite complicated to do because when I am given a geometric plan, on paper, I have to really think about how I’m doing it. I seem to have difficulty in sorting out my left and my right [laugh] and so I think I’ve got into the swing of it and then I suddenly think oh no! I’m going to have to unpick that bit because I’ve done it wrong and what I did do with this quilt which I don’t always do is I was very precise about unpicking if it wasn’t quite right and making sure that it did fit together and I have to say I really enjoyed it. It was hard because I had to concentrate but I was pleased with the effect and because you do it in straight lines and then you turn it on the diagonal it actually surprises you with the actual finished product.
GS: You haven’t made a lot of quilts in the past have you, so what have you learned in making this do you think?
PW: It was to do with being precise, very precise in terms of cutting out the squares and being very accurate which I am not always and if it wasn’t accurate it wouldn’t work and so that was a lesson well learned. I think because I’ve also got a new sewing machine, I’ve got a Janome Horizon machine, which has also got the big harp that you were talking about and that’s why I chose it, I think it was the first thing I made on my new sewing machine, and it has a different quarter inch foot from what I have used previously on a Brother machine in that it has the quarter inch foot with the little lip on it, and also you can dial up the code on the machine which is specifically for doing quarter inch seams on the machine and moves the needle so that it is exactly for doing the quarter inch, so it was a good exercise to do with a new sewing machine and to be able to use that facility really. I got a lot of pleasure from it and I feel good about it because I feel that it worked.
GS: Yes, yes indeed it has and you have actually quilted it beautifully. You have quilted in the ditch and it’s extremely well done.
PW: I really appreciate that. Because I’m new to quilting, and I keep being told by people I’m not allowed to say that anymore, [laughter] I never quilted until I became a steward at the Quilt Museum so I only really started in about 2010, so I do still feel that I have a lot of learning to do, and I am very critical of my finished products because I can always see all of the mistakes that I have made [laughs].
GS: Well, you will do and so can we all but I can’t see any mistakes you’ve made, so that’s the main thing isn’t it. And what are your plans for this quilt?
PW: I’ve had it on the table in our garden room but it doesn’t really go with the colours that we’ve got in there and so I’ve been asked to do a talk for the WI about patchwork and quilting, so I thought it might make quite a nice raffle prize for them to go on the evening which I think they’ll appreciate.
GS: I’m sure they’ll be absolutely thrilled. It will be a very nice souvenir of your talk actually. So tell me about your interest in quilt making. How did you start?
PW: Well, I’ve always been a sewer. My mum was a sewer and so as a child, when she was sewing I would always have bits of fabric and I would always be making little bits for the dolls and just wrapping bits around them and doing the odd bit of stitching and I suppose I just learnt those skills from my Mum. And always enjoyed it, including the bits of sewing the bit of fabric to your skirt while you were sewing [laughs], cutting things out and only discovering you’d made a hole in your skirt while you were sewing for which my Mother was not terribly impressed, but all of those skills that you learned, literally at your Mother’s knee. And I enjoyed it, I always enjoyed it. And I suppose then, as time went on, as a teenager I made my own clothes because you couldn’t necessarily buy what you wanted in the shops, and I used to see things in magazines and adapt patterns to make them suit what I wanted. I have to say they were very short dresses but that probably tells you my age. And then obviously when I had children of my own I started making clothes for them, lots of ‘Clothkits’ dresses for my daughter and, yes, I always did that, and then I think I became dissatisfied with the quality of my own dressmaking for clothes for myself, and clothes became very cheap and fabric was quite expensive and also I had a full time job and you just sort of run out of time to be able to do it, I’m afraid.
GS: Yes, indeed, yes. So, how did you learn to quilt?
PW: I made it up as I went along I think, really. I was working as a steward in the Quilt Museum and it was when the Quilters’ Guild had their Thirtieth Anniversary and they did their ‘Pearls, Pearls, Pearls’ exhibition and I have to say that that blew me away because up until that point I’d really thought that quilting and patchwork was all about those little hexagons and sewing them together and I tried that and I sort of lost the will to live and I realised that there was a huge, huge world. I’d always been a painter, I’d really enjoyed my digital photography, so to see some of the art quilts that were using a mixture of painting techniques and digital photographs and incorporating those into quilts, I thought, “I can do this”. Nothing like the standard that I was seeing on the walls but I want to have a go and I suppose I just went home and played. And although I like going to workshops and I like learning from other people and I now like people explaining to me how to do things, the initial bit I like to do by myself. I like to sort of muddle through a little bit, find out what the mistakes are and actually see what the gaps are in my knowledge and then I can go to somebody to teach me that particular bit of the skill.
GS: So how do you decide what you are going to do?
PW: I started by making a quilt for my three year old granddaughter and I bought a pattern, a ‘Monkey Puzzle’ pattern called ‘The House that Jack Built’, but I didn’t like the colours that she had used. I don’t like to copy, I like to be able to adapt and make things work for me. I didn’t like the colours that she’d used so I went into the ‘Viking Loom’ which is our quilting shop in York, or one of our quilting shops, and I bought colours that I thought would go together, so they were much stronger, brighter colours than had been used on the original, and I bought lots of ‘fat quarters’. I’d attended a ‘Young Quilters’ workshop to teach the children alongside the people who were running the workshop, I was just a supporter, and discovered the joys of rotary cutters and cutting boards and plastic rulers, so I bought those and I set to and I made ‘The House that Jack Built’ which was my very first quilt, and I learnt how to put this great big mass of fabric onto a sewing machine and quilt it all on the machine, and I really learned all the things that I couldn’t do and that’s what then got me started into doing some patchwork and quilting classes.
GS: So do you always piece by machine, quilt by machine, or hand….
PW: No, no. I started off by using the machine for everything, which I found much easier, but then in more recent years I’ve really got back into hand sewing and I enjoy hand sewing. I don’t watch a huge amount of television, but actually it’s quite nice if you are watching a film, or a programme that you’re interested in that you are able to sit there and hand sew. It’s very therapeutic and doesn’t mean you’re just sitting there in front of the telly doing nothing else. It makes you feel better about yourself for some reason, I don’t know why [laughs], but I do both.
GS: Good. And are you a member of any particular groups?
PW: I am, and that’s very new as well because I’d been very much a solitary quilter, and I decided that I was now good enough to be able to take on board the things that people would be talking about and possibly be able to try some of the things that were suggested. And so I had to go on a waiting list for the Priory Quilters, which was fine, so I’ve been a member there since January and I’m also a member of the ‘White Rose Quilters’. And it’s lovely because I already knew quite a few people in both groups through stewarding at the Museum, people that I’ve met there, but also I’ve met other people and it’s just such a friendly, sociable thing to do. You know I love it, absolutely love it.
GS: And what about workshops? You say you’ve been on some workshops. Have you done any workshops with people we might know of?
PW: I have. My very first workshop was with Sandra Meech and that was in the days when we were still doing what we called a ‘Quilters’ Retreat’ which was a Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Quilt Museum. She just blew me away because she’s a very good teacher and she gave us so many ideas for different techniques to use, some of which I don’t like, and others which I’ve used over and over again and so that really made me push the boundaries as to the kind of things that you could do. I mean, one of the silly things that we did on the Friday evening, was actually to have lots and lots of Bondaweb and to paint it with acrylic paints and leave it all to dry, so we had the whole of the shop, the entrance area, the Education Room with all of our stuff just laid out drying, and then we had to come in early on the Saturday morning, before anybody else arrived, to then pick up all of our bits and pieces to be able to do it. And of course, what I discovered was that when you iron this Bondaweb that’s been painted with the acrylic, onto flat fabric, what you end up with, using an A4 sheet are some amazing techniques, um finishes. So it’s a bit like using batik fabrics and so of course you can then cut out little leaf shapes and all sorts of things and have this exquisite piece of fabric that is unique, that you have actually created yourself and I really enjoyed doing that. And the other thing that I’ve been able to do as a result of that is to go back to my hand embroidery and so to use a whole range of threads and techniques, so that you can actually stitch on top of those created fabrics. And I enjoy doing that.
GS: But you were using Bondaweb, so you’ve got to stick it onto two fabrics, it’s going to be sticky.
PW: You’ve got your paper backing, so you just iron the paper backing.
GS: Yes, so you leave the paper backing on do you?
PW: No, you peel it off and so you’ve then got a fabric that’s got all those layers of paint on.
GS: Yes, and then doesn’t it stick onto anything else if you…
PW: Well, if you iron it through the paper onto whatever fabric it is that you’re then using, what then holds it in place is obviously things like your hand embroidery stitches, so that it’s not washable, it has to be an art quilt to go as a wall hanging.
GS: Yes, how interesting.
PW: And as a result of that, I’m just thinking about this, we’d been in Manchester, which is where my step-daughter was living at the time, and she’d taken us on a historical walk through the whole of Ancoats, with all of the cotton mills and the old manufacturing area, and I had taken quite a lot of photographs, so I’d also taken photographs of my husband with his daughter walking along by the canals and everything, so I actually used some of those pieces and the techniques from Sandra’s workshop to make her, to make Claire a wall hanging which was based upon all the Ancoats cotton mills.
GS: That sounds wonderful.
PW: And I really enjoyed that. And that was the good part about a workshop, because although you didn’t have to have a finished product as a result of it, it does actually give you a focus and I like to finish things. I do like to finish things, and even if it takes me two or three years I like to have a finished product. I can’t just keep accumulating UFO’s, I do, but I do like to finish them.
GS: So to do that particular wall hanging you would be using appliqué techniques, would you?
PW: I was
GS: So do you have any preference patching, piecing, or appliqué?
PW: I don’t. It’s whatever I’m doing at the time and I usually enjoy, although I equally enjoy, I do like to have two or three things going on at the same time, because if you’re doing something that’s very heavily appliquéd and you do a piece and nothing you do is right, it’s actually quite nice to put it away and take out something that’s completely different and then you can go back to the one you’re having problems with after you’ve had a pause. And that works for me ‘cos I’m not very patient, and so if I’m getting into difficulties it’s easier to stop and revisit.
GS: So tell me, can you now, about your studio, your workroom.
PW: Right, right. Well it’s gradually evolved. When I first came to live in York I had no fabric at all, because I’d never done this before, and when we went down to the quilt show at the V&A all that time ago I was buying fabrics because there were those beautiful ones that they’d produced specially for the exhibition. And all of my fellow quilters were saying, “Why are you buying more fabric for your stash, Pat?” and I said, “Because I haven’t got any”, because as a teacher anytime I had anything I went to school and I never saw it again, so I had none. That was in 2010, I think that exhibition took place, and here we are in 2014 and I now have a room that is full of fabric, so I needed somewhere to put it. So we’re very fortunate because I have a spare bedroom. The house is on three floors and this particular room is the whole of the top of the house, and it’s a bit like Topsy, it’s just ‘growd’. I have open book shelves which I absolutely love because I can then be extremely uptight and anal and have everything organised in colours on fabric bolts using these comic boards which I just love, so that they’re all in order according to the colours. And I’ve made fabric boxes which are also the colours of the rainbow so each one has got scraps of ribbon and buttons that go with it all and I can just sort of sit in this room and do nothing, just enjoy being there, and I’ve got a wall where I pin things, I’ve got a hanging rail that I drape things over, which I also look at. The ironing board is up all of the time and occasionally my husband will get a shirt ironed, but I actually spend more time ironing my bits of fabric and making them look good. But I also have, which is very unusual, it used to be an ensuite bathroom up there, and the bath didn’t really fit ‘cos of the eaves of the roof, so the bath has been taken out and I now have a washing machine and a tumble dryer and a big sink in there, and do you know what, that works absolutely brilliantly because it all compliments what I’ve been doing in that room. And my grandchildren come and we have sewing bees and we’ve got enough space in that, I think the last time when she came there were five of her friends, and so we all sit and sew and the grandchildren love it because they know where everything is in the room and they know that the only thing that they must never, ever touch is the rotary cutters. They know that even though I am meticulous about knowing that the blades are retracted, I’m neurotic about them having a play. But they know where everything is and they get painting stuff out and gluing stuff and we just have it like an art studio really. It’s magical, just magical.
GS: It sounds it. Goodness me. So how much time do you spend, would you say, every week in your workshop?
PW: It’s difficult because my husband and I are both retired and we like to travel, so we can go away for maybe several weeks and then when I come back I’m itching to get back into my sewing room and so I can then have a phase where I might be up there all day and every day. I try not to do too much in the evening, ‘cos I do try and speak to my husband [laughs] and show him that I do exist, but he has an office and he likes doing Excel spreadsheets, I’m sorry about this, but this is what he does, and so we have our own space, if you see what I mean and then it’s nice to come together. But hard to judge over a period of time, but it is my main activity, is patchwork and quilting.
GS: Well that sounds lovely. So what is it, do you think, you’ve had a lot of experience sitting in the Quilt Museum, looking at beautiful quilts, and we’ve changed the exhibition every four months, and there have been a number since you’ve been stewarding, what is it that makes a great quilt?
PW: It’s difficult to say because when I first started stewarding it was the ones that had the biggest visual impact, so when you’re stewarding a particular exhibition there’s one that you keep being drawn to over and over again, and sometimes it’s the colour palette, something about the colours that you think, “Oh! Wow, that really works. What is it about that that really makes it zing?” or whatever, and then over a period of time when you spend more and more time looking at them sometimes there are others that don’t stand out to start with that you gradually get to know and love because it’s the exquisite workmanship I think really, particularly with something like the wholecloth quilts which I didn’t particularly like when I first started, I really struggled to get to like those but when you look at the designs and how they’ve made, particularly the big double bed quilts and you’ve got those lovely feather designs, and the shells and how they actually get them all to fit together, and sometimes they don’t, I mean that’s the other nice part about it. There’s one of the Amy Emms ones, I think, where actually she’s done it completely wrong in one corner, and that’s lovely too, isn’t it, because it makes it very personal. It isn’t about it being 100% perfect, it’s the fact that there’s something about the personality of the person making it that comes through as well. So it’s difficult to put your finger on it. I mean I like machine quilts, I like hand quilts, I like some that are very subtle colours, I like some that have got ‘wow’ , you know, in your face. The only ones that I don’t particularly like are the art quilts where they use people’s faces and for me they just don’t work. We’ve just entered ‘Chinese Whispers’ in Loch Lomond as a group and one of the people who contributed to that had done a picture of fishermen in a boat, but what she had done is that she hadn’t given many faces, so you just got that overall effect of the figure and that worked, but it’s when people take it… that’s what I can’t do and it’s very personal… variety. I think that’s what knocked me out as well.
GS: So what do you think it is that makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a collection?
PW: Well, partly it’s its historical significance, and for example if you think about the Red Cross quilts that were made in the Second World War, the handiwork is not always of the best, but it’s the provenance, isn’t it? It’s the story that goes with that particular quilt, and some of them in particular actually tell the story of the person who was the recipient during the Blitz, for example, and so that makes that special. And it’s plugging those sort of gaps in history, that aren’t necessarily represented in a collection. And then equally it’s ones like the seventeen hundreds coverlet and how that was worked on which is just so intricate and the appliqué and the silk, and then, equally, looking at something like Sandra Meech’s work, you’ve got both ends of the spectrum and I think both ends of the spectrum need to be there don’t they as part of the collection?
GS: And do you have any favourite quilters, any that you particularly admire?
PW: Bainbridge, what’s her first name? She had the retrospective a little while ago. I’ve forgotten her Christian name. I really admire her work and I love seeing, when it was the retrospective, the fact that she had worked through from very traditional quilting to what she’s doing now which is very free, and using all those wholecloth techniques, but with just paint and a few stitches, and I think her training as a fine artist, I think comes through over and over again. I like Sandra Meech’s work because I love the work that she’s done with snow and ice and using sort of natural features of climate and being able to again explore and experiment with the kind of work that she’s doing, but her quilting is absolutely exquisite. So she’s got the fine artist but she’s equally got these amazing skills in terms of quilting. So they would be the two main ones I think. I saw Susan Briscoe when we went up to Loch Lomond and I love the work that she’s done with Japanese fabrics and again the colours that she’s used and the way she then sometimes mixes in traditional English patchwork with the Japanese, I mean it’s a marriage made in Heaven isn’t it? It’s just lovely. I could probably go on at great length, that’s the sad part about it.
GS: And how do you feel about longarm quilting?
PW: I’ve never tried it. I’ve watched a film footage of people using a longarm quilter and I’m not convinced really. It just seems a bit too mechanical for me, and I do like what is the finished product to be all my own work really. I’m a bit reluctant. I can understand if there was a specific reason for needing to get somebody to longarm quilt something that you’ve made, but I’m not convinced really. I like to have a go at it myself even though it’s not very good. I like to have a go.
GS: Why would you say that quiltmaking is important to you in your life?
PW: When I was working I was doing a very stressful job and so when I took early retirement, my husband was convinced that I would really struggle with not being at work all day every day because it was such a big part of my life, and actually quilting has sort of taken over from that really, because when I’m planning things, or thinking things through, I think, “that would be a good idea” or, “ I could try that”, or “I love those colours”, or whatever, it’s just so absorbing in terms of creativity, in terms of the actual physical aspect of hand sewing or machine, whichever aspect it happens to be, you’re totally absorbed in it, and while you’re doing it you can think of nothing else, so it’s sheer escapism really and I just feel incredibly relaxed. I just love it, absolutely love it.
GS: Now you mentioned that you made a quilt for your daughter, or your husbands…
PW: Granddaughter, oh! and my stepdaughter, yes.
GS: The one about the area where she lived, do your other quilts reflect anything in your community or region?
PW: No, no not really. I’m very new to Yorkshire so I don’t feel, you know, that I’m particularly grounded in Yorkshire. I’ve live all over the world and so it’s more about me really, and family rather than this particular region.
GS: And what do you see as the importance of quilts in life today?
PW: Well I think they’re growing importance really. When we’ve had trips to America, I love the way the Americans put a big price on their quilts that reflects the amount of time and energy, and the fact that they respect their quiltmakers as artists in their own right, and I think that that is growing in the UK. Pauline Burbidge, we’ve got there in the end, for example, is able to put high prices on her quilts and is obviously collected by art galleries as well as people that are just collecting quilts, and so they are seen increasingly, I mean Jo Budd is a really good example of this, as artists in their own right, and I’m hoping that that that will grow and grow and not be seen as just a ‘craft’ that’s second rate. And I think with the emphasis on recycling and young people being much more interested in things like vintage fabrics, I think we’ve got a growing number of youngsters who are much more interested. I think we’ve had this horrible gap over the last twenty or thirty years where people haven’t really been interested and I think it’s coming back. I hope so anyway.
GS: How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future?
PW: I think that’s where the Quilters Guild with the Museum and Gallery is just crucial. We don’t have anywhere else that’s showing quilts that are specific to the British Isles, and I know from going up to the Loch Lomond Quilt Show just last week, you know, people do have this sense of being able to preserve the heritage from their particular area and if we didn’t have that I don’t quite know how we could share these with people, and it’s great having the one in Bath which is American quilts, but there are quilt museums all over America. All of the different States all seem to have their little museums, none of which attract any more visitors than we have in York, whereas this is National and for the whole of the British Isles, and it’s just important that it’s there and we can share that fantastic collection.
GS: And what do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?
PW: Time, I think. Part of the reason we’ve skipped generations is that so many people have virtually no leisure time. Part of society that is having to do two or three jobs, particularly the women, to make ends meet, they certainly don’t have the time to be able to go into patchwork and quilting. Those of us that have been fortunate enough to be in a profession and probably earned good money in terms of being able to spend on fabrics and so on and so forth, I mean the demands that are made now. When I first started teaching in 1971 you still went to night classes because you signed up for night classes that was something you did. Now people come home, feed the children, as soon as they’ve fed the children and put them to bed, they start work again, and I mean I know as a head teacher, Mike would say at one o’clock in the morning, “I really think you ought to stop now”, so how do you fit it in with those kind of pressures? I think we’re all losing out as a result of this and I just think that this situation where people have to give 110% has got to give, it’s got to give and we do need to think much more carefully about our leisure time
GS: That’s all been very interesting. Pat. Thank you very much indeed for talking to me, and I look forward to talking to you some more in the future. Thank you.