ID number: TQ.2016.028
Name of interviewee: Rosalind Johansson
Name of interviewer: Sheenagh Davis
Name of transcriber: Take 1
Address: Bishop’s Frome, Worcester
Date: 31 May 2016
Length of interview: 0:28:35
Rosalind’s ‘African Mudcloth and Pots’ quilt was made as a step-by-step quilt for a patchwork and quilting magazine, using African pots, mudcloth and African prints. She talks about her inspiration for the quilt and the techniques used in making the quilt. Rosalind spent 12 years living in Africa, which is where she first started quiltmaking, but also talks about how fabrics and techniques from all over the world inspire her work. Later she also discusses sewing machines, machine quilting, and the challenge of selling quilts.
Sheenagh Davis [SD]: Morning, would you like to tell me your name, please?
Rosalind Johansson [RJ]: Rosalind Johansson.
SD: Rosalind, tell me about this wonderful quilt that we can see.
RJ: It’s called the Mud Cloth and Pots. It’s an African print. Um…
SD: Can you describe it for me, the size and the colours and the patterns, style, those types of things and oh, what kind of fabric you’ve got?
RJ: Well, it’s, it’s a strippy quilt with the, the, the stripes going up and down. It’s got three stripes across that that represent a type of African fabric known colloquially as Mud Cloth, its name in Africa is Bògòlanfini and it’s between those three strips, the two strips each with the eight, eight different pots appliqued on, so the strips of Mud Cloth are pieced and the pots are appliqued.
SD: And the colours are quite interesting that you’ve chosen. Tell me about the colours.
RJ: Well, the colours of the mud cloth are actually representing the real colours of the mud cloth, which is, is dyed in Mali using mud from bottom of rivers, that is actually got chemicals in it which, which turns the originally white cotton into various browns. So I’ve got different, different shades of brown plus black with white spots and the white spots they make by applying bleach to the black dyed cloth.
SD: Aah. So hence the name Mud Cloth ’cause it’s literally dyed from mud. How do they set it? Does it actually wash out eventually or fade?
RJ: I think it fades a bit but they set it by letting it dry in the sun.
SD: That’s great. So how do you use this quilt?
RJ: Well, it, it was made it was made as a step by step African quilt for British Patchwork and Quilting magazine so I just use it to, to show people at talks I do. It’s… [a man interrupts]
[SD switches off recording briefly.]
SD: So how do you feel about this quilt?
RJ: Well, it’s got some memories for me because, because it was actually Diane Huck who asked me to make it for the magazine and she was then the editor, and she kept an eye on it as I was doing it and as was her wont, you know. I said, ‘When do you need it?’ And she said, ‘Like yesterday.’ So I didn’t have very long to make it and of course when you’ve writing out a step by step and taking pictures as you go along it takes a lot longer than, than it would normally do when you can just go straight ahead. So it is very much associated in my mind with Diane and she passed away a couple of years ago now and she was a very good friend to me. Yeah, it has that, it has that association for me.
SD: But it must also have an association with your time in Africa ’cause it’s absolutely beautiful. It’s all the different kind of pots that they, you must have seen and they must have used, is that right?
RJ: I haven’t seen all of those but several of them are pots that I saw in a little museum that was near where I used to live in Tanzania and I sketched them while I was in the museum and then a couple of other ones are pots that I actually own myself and the rest I found some pictures. There’s actually only eight different pots so they appear twice but in different colour ways.
SD: How long were you out in Africa for?
RJ: Total of 12 years, four in Botswana and eight in Tanzania.
SD: So the quilt really must kind of reflect some of your, you must have some memories of some of your times out there?
RJ: Yeah, well the pots specifically. I wasn’t in Mali where the Mud Cloth comes from, never managed to get to West Africa yet and, and at the moment Mali’s not a very safe place to go to but I would like to go there one day. It’s a fascinating country.
SD: So, when did you first start making quilts?
RJ: I started with patchwork while I was still in Tanzania. It sort of presented a bit of a challenge to me to see if I could use the African prints in patchwork because of course they are very bold and large patterns on them and I thought is that something I could, I could make into patchwork and my first efforts were pretty awful really, but then I got the hang of how you can use it. And so I started there and but my interest started before I went to Tanzania in the, in the 90s, before I went I used to go to the Quilt Show at Malvern and just look at the quilts. I didn’t make any attempt to make any at that time but we used to go just to enjoy seeing the quilts that were exhibited. So I suppose I’d had it in my mind for a while that it was something I wanted to do.
SD: Are there any quilt, other quilt makers in your family?
RJ: No, but my, my mother was a very skilled dressmaker. She did all the levels of City & Guilds in Dressmaking which goes up to Advanced and then Teachers. So she taught me to sew at quite an early age and, and I had a sewing machine from about the time I was 15. So it wasn’t very different to, to learn to do patchwork because I was already quite competent at sewing and I think that is a, is a huge help if you’ve going to start going patchwork and quilting.
SD: And it’s, is it mainly machine quilting you do rather than hand or do you use a bit of a mixture?
RJ: Well, I sometimes do hand sewing like on the applique pots, some of those are hand, the, the, they are embroidered, but I, I’m not very interesting in hand quilting as such. I like, I like the challenge of machine quilting, free machine embroidery and the possibilities that opens up with texture. I think you’ll agree that in the plain areas of this quilt the background is a, is a, a rich creamy colour. I’ve textured it with different machine embroidery designs.
SD: Yeah, I can see ’cause the vermicelli stitch is something I’m trying to get to grips with at the moment and yours looks pretty, pretty expert there. So, have you been to any work shops or quilting courses?
RJ: Not courses as such but I have attended a few workshops that have sometimes three or four days like with Pat Archibald and Gloria Loughman and then I’ve done day courses with Ineke Berlin and Gillian Travis.
SD: Oh, yeah. I’ve been in Ineke Berlin’s, they’re great aren’t they? So what’s your preferred style or technique? Do you have a particular technique that you like?
RJ: I suppose I do a lot of applique actually. I like the possibilities that reverse applique brings. I’ve been experimenting with that but I don’t want to talk too much about that because I’m hoping to write a book, so with some, with some new ideas for applique in it.
SD: Sounds exciting. What’s the thing that you really enjoy about quilt making? Is there anything, and is there anything that you don’t particularly enjoy?
RJ: No, I think I, I enjoy everything, but what I particularly enjoy is, is the opportunity to, to work with colour, with texture and with the things I’m interesting in which is traditional textiles from several countries around the world.
SD: Yeah, I can see that in your work that you have been quite influenced and your Swedish textiles and your… this obviously is African textiles and I think more currently I’ve seen you working on some ideas from Peru which are great. Is there any particularly technology that you use when you’re quilt making?
RJ: Well, it depends what you count as technology. I use a rotary cutter which I think is a great piece of, of technology. I don’t use the computer much. I might, I might look for images on the computer to sort of complement pictures that I’ve taken myself or, you know… if I want, you know, some pictures of lamas and elephants that I don’t have my own photographs of, I might look at images on the computer, but I don’t actually use it for designing or embroidery or anything like that.
SD: When you talk about taking your own photographs, have you got a highly specialised camera? Or is it an iPad? Or…
RJ: No, I just, I just use an ordinary camera or my iPad.
SD: And your sewing machine I’ve seen you using is a kind of, compared to a lot today, it is quite a basic kind of machine. It isn’t anything that you can programme in lots of different designs and then just sit back and watch.
RJ: No, no, I’d say it was, it’s middle, it’s not basic. I’ve got, the one I use most is a Husqvarna. It’s got, you know, a lot of stitches on it, and obviously it does free machine quilting, but it’s not, I find it quite difficult to get to grips with the ones that are more computerised. But no, I won’t be buying an embroidery machine. It’s too much fun to do it myself. You mentioned the vermicelli on here, but in fact that’s not the only quilting design. I’ve taken squares and diamonds from the piece design and made shapes with them in the, in the free machine quilted areas.
SD: What do you mean from the piece design?
RJ: Well, these shapes… from the, from the Mud Cloth. They’re very geometric, they’re actually quarter square triangles aren’t they?… and short strips and because diamonds and triangles appear quite a lot in African designs, I’ve, I’ve just done lines across in a diamond shape which has then compressed that area so the triangles in the strips between the diamonds are then, kind of a bit elevated, slightly puffy so you get a sort of subtle triangle and diamond shape practically all over the quilt.
SD: Now then, this is a bit of a question, where and when do you quilt?
RJ: [Laughs] I quilt, well, I quilt at home, in my, in my workshop though I found sadly it’s rather dark in there, so lately I’ve been quilting in front of the dining room window which has got lots of light coming in, and yeah, I do it whenever I can [DS laughs] which is sometimes days at a stretch and other times not for a couple of weeks.
SD: Have you ever had to get up in the middle of the night ’cause you’ve got an urge to quilt?
RJ: No, no… I need my sleep.
SD: And so how do you go about making a quilt? I know that you’ve talked to me a little bit about sometimes taking a design and just letting it evolve and grow from the middle, is that the kind of general way? Do you sketch out a design? How do you go about I?
RJ: Yeah. I usually start with parts of the design rather than a whole design and I will, I keep, I keep A4 books often with squared paper in and I’ll, I’ll draw a part of a design on the squared paper, and, and, and then trace those onto baking parchment if they’re the right size, like the pots I sketched out at this size and then, and then put them on, on baking parchment and then on Bondaweb. But yeah. So I’ll start with, with some elements of the design and then I might make several elements and then lay them out together. It’s some, occasionally I will start with a whole design like we did in the Gloria Loughman workshop, but more often it evolves as I go along. I’ll, I’ll lay the pieces out on a background that I think will look right and, you know, move them about or try different colours until it looks right to me. There’s very few quilts that I’ve done from an entire design drawn out to size first although I do do that but my preferred method is to kind of let it evolve.
SD: Yeah, we had a chat about that before and I found that quite interesting that it’s really using your knowledge and experience over the years of putting colours together and when you said to me that you designed something from beginning to end and then you go to find some different fabrics, you might not have the colours or the fabrics so for you it’s, it’s a bit of both, coming up with an idea and design but then looking at the fabrics you’ve got and what really goes together. I think it’s quite an interesting way of going about it. And how much… oh, this is a good one. How, how much time do you spend quilt making? And what do you spend money on for your quilting?
RJ: [Laughs] I spend the most money on fabrics, um…
SD: Never, you haven’t got any fabrics, Rosalind! [Both laugh]
RJ: No, but I mean I don’t spend a lot of money on, on, on tools and machines and so on. I think I’ve got what I need really in the way of, of mats and cutters and rulers and so on. I inherited quite a few of those from, from Diane and also from my Mum. Yeah, so most of the money goes on fabric. I do buy some dyes and some fabric paints as well because I, I, I dye some of my own fabrics. This fabric in this quilt is 90% Oakshott by the way because I needed a lot of different creams and browns. So, Oakshott, although it’s expensive and the fabric’s a little bit thin, it does have the benefit of, of having a lot of shades and also the shot ones are beautiful, sometimes they look like, like silk. Mm.
SD: And the time that you spend, but I bet you just, you’re probably going to say that you want to spend more time on it ’cause I know you love quilting so much. But I guess life gets in the way sometimes so is it, it’s not kind of morning till night every day is it?
RJ: No, no, it’ll be, it’ll be, it’ll be periods when I’m making something and I’m on a roll and then I’ll go for it, you know, I might get tired in the afternoon and have a nap or work in the garden and then I’ll carry on till maybe nine or ten in the evening especially if it’s quilting. I don’t choose, I don’t choose colours in the evening, I prefer to do that in the daylight.
SD: And then I suppose things like when you know that you’ve got Festival of Quilts coming up or HR[?], do you kind of nose to the grindstone and then you’re doing a bit more are you?
RJ: Yeah, yeah, then I’m, I’m preparing, I’m preparing a body of work you might say on, on a certain theme, like at the moment I’m doing, I’m doing work on Peru as you mentioned, I’m making textiles that reflect the different textiles that I found in Peru. Um…
SD: And when you, when you’re going to quilt shows, I know for me they’re a little bit daunting ’cause they’re so fabulous but what do you look for or notice in a quilt? Is there something in particular that you really feel makes a good quilt?
RJ: I suppose, I suppose design and colour really, balance and, and I love, I love seeing the different quilts. I especially like landscape quilts or, or pictorial quilts rather than the traditional geometric quilts although sometimes you see a geometric quilt that is, is such a stunning design and such beautiful colours that it really blows you away. So when I go to a quilt show I do have a good look at all the quilts, and spend some time in front of the ones that I really like, and then I’ve usually got in mind some fabrics that I want to buy. I usually know what I want and go and buy those and, I might have a look at, at if there are any new and interesting books out… Books yes.
SD: Where do you get your ideas and inspiration?
RJ: Well, they just come to me, really, when I, when I, when I see different textiles or different designs from the countries that I especially visit, you can’t say from the whole world because there’s too much, I mean, so many textiles, so many designs. Yeah, I, I have this, this funny thing. I’ve had it for many years. I always think can I, I used to think can I do that in another medium. I, I remember I was on a course once on Chinese, Chinese painting and we saw some pictures and we saw a video of a very elderly Chinese man using this particular technique and I thought, ‘ I wonder if I can do that in pastel?’ And I secretly went to my room and didn’t tell the teacher that as well as the watercolour painting, I was also doing a Chinese landscape in pastel. Worked quite well and I have the same irresistible urge to, to, to do that with patchwork and quilting. You’ve seen, I’ve just made a waistcoat with a lot of applique that is based on a woven design from Peru.
SD: Well, what do, what do you do with all these quilts you’ve got?
RJ: [Laughs] Well, a few I sell. I notice that people will buy smaller wool quilts. I haven’t made many bed quilts. Yeah, so I use them in my talks.
SD: Oh yes, Swedish and…
RJ: Swedish, Swedish Heritage Textiles and Textiles from East Africa, yeah.
SD: And you’ve got, I notice you’ve got one or two smaller ones like wall hangings in your house as well which are great. What do you think is the biggest challenge you face as a quilter today?
RJ: Selling my work.
SD: Ah, ha, yes. I suppose that’s probably that the same for everybody ’cause I, you know, the, I’ve seen the amount of work that you put into these quilts and If you were to really sell them for the true value, they’d be just an extortionate price. How do you feel about that? Can you come to terms with having to sell and let them go at something that you probably would never really get the true value of?
RJ: Yeah, especially when I’ve had them a few years. I mean when you first make, make them, they’re kind of like your babies and you don’t really want to part with them, but you end up with such a stack that then you’re able to part with the ones that you’re, you’re not so in love with.
SD: Do you feel that there’s a little bit of you sewn into all of the quilts, obviously you, there’s different people, sometimes you can just look at something and you’ll know it’s from a certain textile artist, but with yours, do you feel as you’re sewing, you’re selling a little bit of you into each one?
RJ: Yeah, I, I think, I think, I think I do, yeah and talk about the other challenge, the other challenge I have is to improve my free machine embroidery.
SD: Oh. That’s a big challenge.
RJ: Yes, I have problems with, with, with tension. I think a lot of, a lot quilters find that it’s difficult to get the, the tension right and, and to get the length of stitch even. So I’m never satisfied with the quality of my free machine quilting.
SD: And I kind of final question really is why is quilt making important in your life?
RJ: I’ve always loved fabric, I suppose I got that from my Mum. Fabrics come in such an enormous wealth though, I mean even talking just about cotton, an enormous wealth of colours and designs, and I dye some myself, so that’s exciting. Yeah, it’s a way for me to, to express the creative ideas that I have. I suppose that’s why it’s important to me. I’ve always needed to be creative in one way or another and done some painting and I, I make felt. Yeah, so I love, I love working with, with fabrics and with textures and colour and it allows me to express the creative drive that I have.
SD: And do you think it gives you connection with other quilters? I know the talks that you do, does that give you a connection to other people as well that are like minded?
RJ: Yes, it does. I mean it’s, you know, I used to think that doing talks was very daunting but now I’ve got used to it, it’s a joy actually because people, well they seem to enjoy my talks because they come up and talk to me afterwards, and you know, you make new friends and, and quilters are such friendly people that it is a nice community and, and when you go somewhere to do a talk you always feel welcome and, and yeah, it’s, it’s really lovely.
SD: I’ve noticed that when we, we go to shows together that you’ve got a lot of people that you know and there’s always an exchange of ideas or, and people seem to be very generous with helping you out and exchanging ideas and sharing a bit of knowledge and things, so in a lot of other areas that probably people become a bit precious and it might not actually work like but as you said I think that quilters seem to be quite generous with their time and their knowledge and it’s almost that they’re wanting to expand what they’re doing and expanding their quilting as a whole, do you find that?
RJ: Yeah, I think that’s true. People are generous with ideas and advice and friendly and, you know, give you positive criticism and so on, it’s, it’s a very positive community and I’ve really loved being part of it.
SD: Oh, I’ve never really asked you, oh yeah, I suppose, how long you have been doing this quilting? So I suppose really since those days of when you first got that machine when you were about 14 or 15?
RJ: No, no I didn’t start quilting then. I didn’t start trying to do patchwork until about 2004 when I was in Tanzania and then, then I really went into it in a big way when I came back from there.
SD: So in Tanzania, just to kind of clarify this, in Tanzania, is there patchwork out there or did you kind of introduce? I know you said that you were interested because of the different bold fabrics but had you seen patchwork out there? Because I thought in my ignorance, I always thought patchwork and quilting was quite a British type of craft.
RJ: No, I didn’t, I didn’t see any there. I didn’t see any there and I didn’t introduce it either because I was so new myself. I was, I was working with a little textile group and we were actually printing and making simple things like table cloths and bedspreads for hotels and curtains and so on, things like that which didn’t require any, any difficult sewing and we only had treadle machines to work with.
SD: Interesting. Thank you very much, Rosalind.
RJ: Thank you, Sheenagh.