ID number: TQ.2016.011
Name of interviewee: Barbara Janssen
Name of interviewer: Victoria Martin
Name of transcriber: Take 1
Location: Barbara’s home
Address: Exeter, Devon
Date: 27 January 2016
Length of interview: 1:41:19
Barbara’s ‘Nurturing’ quilt was inspired by a trip to Ireland to explore her family history and made for the South West Quilters Annual Challenge. She explains in detail how she made the quilt including using a Susan Denton technique to create perspective in the sky, varying quilting stiches to enhance the image and the challenges she faced. Barbara was a founder member of Exeter Quilters, as well as having been heavily involved with both The Quilters’ Guild and South West Quilters. She describes various quilt projects she has been involved with including church banners, group charity quilts and quilts made for family.
Victoria Martin [VM]: The ID number is TQ.2016.011. The name of the interviewee is Barbara Janssen. The interviewer is Victoria Martin. We are at Barbara’s home, which is in Exeter in Devon and the date is the 27th of January 2016. Right then, Barbara, can you start off by telling me a little bit about your quilt?
Barbara Janssen [BJ]: Um, the, the quilt, it’s a rectangular quilt. It’s, I suppose, a large wall hanging rather than a quilt that would go on a bed. It’s 31 inches across and 43 inches down. It took me about 18 months to make. Um, the reason I made it was, um, there was a challenge, I belong to a group called South West Quilters and they have an annual challenge, um, and the entries go into the Spring Quilt Show in Exeter- um, and this challenge was called Back To My Roots and when the Chairman announced it, I knew straight away I had to enter the challenge because I’d had, er, an image in my head, er, for a long time and thought, ‘I have to make a quilt of that.’ The image, er, is of two birds, it’s a sculpture, um, and one, it’s a mother bird with a, er, a baby bird standing on a plinth and against a background of fields, a lake, some hills and a sky. Why I, er, it linked with the Back To My Roots was, er, some years before I was doing some family research with my daughter. Er, my maiden name is an unusual spelling of an Irish name [noise] and I managed to track where, um, my family had come from [beeping noise in background] in the 1840s when they had, er, exited Ireland and come to Britain [beeping noise in background], um, to set up, er, as a market garden. Um, I had [beeping noise in background] no idea, er, a, about this place. I couldn’t even find it on a map, um, [beeping noise in background] but to research the family history further back, I needed to know whether the family were Protestants or Catholics, so I thought, ‘Well, the thing to do is to go there and, because we’ve got such an unusual spelling of our name, I imagine there would be, er, a church an di would find some graves with this, this, this, you know, the, the name spelt on it.’ So one, my daughter was dancing in, in Ireland once and I went over and we took a day off and drove to this place. Um, when we got there, I discovered why we couldn’t really find it on a map, because it wasn’t, er, a village or a town, it was called Killglass Community and it’s in Ross Common in, er, Southern Ireland, although it’s sort of up in the north of Southern Ireland. But it’s a community that is around a lake, so there’s no kind of central place, so the, the, I, there wasn’t a pub or a shop or anything there, just these little cottages dotted around this lake. It was the most beautiful place and it was a beautiful day, the sun was shining and everything was glinting on this lake.
Well, we managed to find a Catholic church and we went about the, all up and down the graves. We couldn’t find anything with our family name on, um, and then I didn’t know what to do because there was very little else. Er, I, I think I imagined it was going to be like, um, um, the TV programme that you, you know, go in the pub and you go in the shop and you’d meet all these people and they’d be able to fill you in with the family history, but it wasn’t quite like that. But we did talk to an old lady and I said to her, ‘Can you tell me where the Protestant church is?’ and she said, ‘Oh, it’s just a heap of rubble underneath those bram, you know, er, er, a load of brambles,’ so there was no graveyard. But because I hadn’t been able to find anything in the Catholic Church, I thought, ‘Well, ok, maybe then my, my family are Protestants.’ Then we started walking around the lake and, um, there was, er, a farmhouse and I got chatting to the person, um, in a garden and she, I said, ‘What’s that building in the yard?’ and she said, ‘Well, that’s the old almshouse. This is where, you know, hundreds of people died in, in, in, at the time of the famines.’ Um, all I knew was that my family were pig farmers and they’d had to get out because of the famine, I didn’t really know anything else, and then this person started telling us about what this place was like in the sort of, er, 1800s and it had been very well populated. Um, because of the lake, people lived, er, they fished so it, it, there were a lot of people living there in a sort of community, er, and she said, ‘Well, if your family were pig farmers, they were well off because most people wouldn’t even have been able to afford pigs.’ Um, but obviously they got, everybody got their marching orders because the land was all owned by, um, English landowners and they all got their marching orders, um, to go. But she said most people from this community, and we’re talking about hundreds of people here, went in coffin ships to America. I’d never heard of coffin ships. Four ships alone went from this area and took people, um, across the Atlantic and the majority never made it and they’re buried in mass graves in Newfoundland… um, and I’ve subsequently found that one branch of my family did actually make it across the Atlantic, and they must have got some disease because they’re all buried in a churchyard, three generations, in, in, er, Maryland. But anyway, for some reason my family came to England so they kind of survived. But I found it really upsetting, thinking about these coffin ships and all these people that had been, you know, evicted and possibly with some hope, but it, it had all gone to nothing.
So we carried on walking round the lake and we talked to one or two other people. One lady who lived in a little bungalow said to us, um, ‘Well, this is, um, Ireland’s best kept secret,’ you know, ’cause I said, ‘I find it weird that we couldn’t even find this place on Google Maps.’ She said, ‘It’s such a beautiful place, we call it our Ring of Kerry, but we don’t tell people about it.’ So there was this combination of this day of really sad, um, things to do with my family but a beautiful place, um, a beautiful day. It, it, it was a kind of mixture of emotions. We carried on walking around the lake and we came across this statue, um… and… it was weird. I was walking with my daughter and we, and we came across this statue and there was a plaque to it and it says in, in, um, memory, I’ve, I’ve… there’s, perhaps we can have a photograph of, [interruption], er, of the back because I’ve actually photographed the, the plaque. But basically, um, it was, er, produced in 1999 and it was in memory of all the people who had lived in this place and who’d died and everything and, again, talking to somebody else, we discovered that they were about to start some excavations in this vicinity because they reckon even way back in the Bronze Age, it was, it was always a very well populated place, even though it wasn’t like a town or a city, because of being able to live off the land. So, you know, it’s not, wasn’t just the potato famine, it would, goes back hundreds of years. Well, standing there with my daughter, found it particularly moving, you know, it was a mother and daughter, there’s me standing there, so I had this image that the s, that the sculpture is actually made in black granite but I had this image in my head and I suppose it was kind of fixed there like a photograph and I knew I had to make a quilt one day to kind of represent my family history, really. It seemed quite symbolic of it. So with this challenge, er, I thought, ‘Right, that’s it, I know, I’m going to make, that’s, er, er, the image of the sculpture and catch the essence of that day, the sunlight, the beautiful surroundings and the kind of moving, um, image of these two birds.’ Um, there’s a quilter that I’ve admired for many years called Susan Denton, who lives in Cornwall, and I’ve always wanted to do a quilt with her skies on it, that she has a particular way of constructing her skies. Some people will know she did a series of quilts based on St Ives, um, and I had the opportunity to go to a workshop to learn how to do these skies, and they’re sort of, er, they are pi, everything is pieced but you sort of, you do a perspective grid so you have a vanishing point below the horizon and then you take the lines out from that vanishing point out and, and draw sort of, er, a radiating grid from that point and then you put in subdivisions and you end up with sort of pieces all different shapes. So, um, you then have to sort of, to piece it because no two pieces are the same. You have to sort of, you, you draw it out accurately and then you trace it onto freezer paper and then the freezer paper, er, pieces become the templates and you can then stick them onto whatever, or iron them onto whatever fabric you want and cut them out and piece them. The, er, the, the piecing has to be very, very accurate and, again, er, Susan has devised her own method of doing this and I’m, I was really glad for her tuition to, to show me how to do that. So it gave me an excuse to do a sky using Susan’s method and then the whole, er, there, there’s a, a row of hills which, er, er, again are a, they, they were sort of drawn, um, as they, as they were and then I just chopped them up into, um, irregular shapes so there’s, there’s no perspective. Um, the lake is done with sort of three strips of fabric, um, and then the foreground is also done in what I call the Susan Denton method. Again, you just take, um, the areas of colour that you want and break them up into, er, smaller shapes and create templates, um, [noise] with using the freezer paper. So the background, the sort of top third is the sky and then there’s this strip of hills, then there’s the lake, then there’s a bit of sort of green shrubs and field and then in the foreground is the plinth that this sculpture stands on, along with the path that leads up to it and then on the plinth the two birds kind of, er, er, appliqued on, um, and, er, sort of silhouetted against the landscape.
Um, I did the birds in purple. I like, I love purple. People always say they can tell my quilts because they’ve got purple in them. It was supposed to be black granite but, you know, you can take a bit of artistic licence [beeping noise in background], er, and the birds are, er, are different shades of purple. Um… I had two challenges apart from the technical difficulties of making this wall hanging, I had two particular [noise] challenges, er, when I came to do it. One is I don’t like brown [beeping noise in background]. I hate brown, in fact, and I very rarely work in brown. [chatter and pause].
I had two big challenges with this quilt, apart from the technical difficulties of, um, piecing it. One was, er, the, the stones at the bottom, er, particularly in the path that lead up to the plinth. Um… they… in, in the photograph they were brown and I had brown, for some unknown reason, um, but I, I think I was on a three day workshop with Susan and, although I didn’t make it in the workshop, she did help me, um, or encourage me to choose the fabrics and she insisted that I used a brown because she knew that I was, you know, wanted to run away and, and change the colour. So, um, I dutifully did it in brown. The second, er, challenge was one of the things that I always admired about Susan Denton’s quilt, and we had discussed this at the beginning of the workshop, er, she chooses often crazy fabrics but they always work and I really admire that, because when I look sometimes at her things, I think, ‘I would never have chosen that.’ Often they’re sort of African or Batik or something but they just… they just make the quilt sing and unique as well; and so she gave me, during the course of this workshop, she gave me a piece of fabric and said, ‘I want to see that somewhere in the quilt.’ and, um, so I knew it couldn’t go in the sky, it was a piece of African fabric, and I ummed and ahhed as to where I would put it and in the end it found its way into, er, the hills. It’s to the left of the neck of the mother bird, it’s a sort of grey fabric with mustard on it. It doesn’t bear any relation to anything that was in, that I saw in reality, but the fabric seemed to go there, so, er, um, I got her approval for that. Um, so that, that was interesting, that one piece of fabric could call, cause me so much heartache, really. I’m normally quite confident when I’m choosing fabrics but, um, if I think something’s wrong or, like that, it’s been imposed upon me, or if it’s kind of brown, then I, I do struggle with all of that.
Um, when it came to the quilting, quilting is not my favourite thing and, um, I think the sky was the easiest to do ’cause I kind of imagined clouds and I just, I did it in sort of big stitch, er, quilting, er, with, with perle thread and the sky was fairly easy to do and… the hills and the background, I had tried to give the impression of fields, um… er, maybe a ploughed field here and there with some, um, close lines of sort of runs of, of quilting stitch and other sort of larger areas, really, of fields. The quilting on the lake, er, there was an area of lake which was very, very still and had the reflection of the sky, so I did minimal stitching there so that the, you can see the sort of reflection of, I, I used a fabric that had some clouds in it so, er, you get a slightly ruffled surface but you can see the reflection; and then there was this area of the lake where the wind was sort of blowing across it and it was a bit more, um, it, there, well, there weren’t waves but it was a bit more irregular and also there was a row of, er, phragmites or reeds sticking out that, er, whether there was a sort of a sandbank further out I don’t know. But, um, I kind of did a lot of close stitching, vertical stitching, to represent the reeds and did closer stitching to represent the, the ruffling of the water. And then there was a bit on the back where it was just reeds, so again I’ve done quite a lot of close stitching to represent the reeds. The quilting on the background, er, fields and bushes and paths really just were to sort of accentuate what was going on in terms of, er, the foreground. Um… but I kind of [dog shakes] painted with, er, the stitching in some, er, where the plinth was quite rounded and I did some rows of close stitching altering the shading of the perle a little bit to get an idea of roundness, um… o, of the, ’cause I felt it was a little bit flat and I still feel I could have improved on that sometimes. Um, but, you know, I had a deadline to meet so there comes a point where you can’t do any more, you’ve just gotta finish [laughs]. Um… so… that’s all I really have to say about the front of the quilt.
On the back of the quilt, there is a picture, er, a, a printed picture of my daughter and I standing in front of the statue. Unbeknown to me, my husband had taken the photograph with his mobile phone and only when I started to draw the quilt out did he show it to me and, again, I found that really moving because it was like mother and daughter looking at mother and daughter and I know in the photograph, although you, you can’t see it, er, both my daughter and I were crying because it was a very emotional day for us. Um… and when I came to make the quilt, I ummed and ahhed about whether I would put my mother, er, my, myself and my daughter into the quilt, er, either with applique to kind of mirror the birds or even just in stitching, like two shadows, and in the end I decided not to ’cause I wanted the quilt to stand in its own right, you know, that it, I didn’t have to explain it to anybody else, you know, what it was and all the emotion that went with it, so I decided in the end not to put us there. Um, but I have documented it on the back so that if anybody wanted to know a little bit more about that, they could see. I also put a, er, a printed ph, er, copy of the, the plaque with the name of the sculptor and the, you know, what it was dedicated to. So I kind of achieved my aim, really, that, as I say, it was a quilt that had just popped in my head and I had the chance to make it. Sometime challenges are good for me because I’ve got a fixed timeline, I’ve got to do them by a certain day, otherwise they, I procrastinate a lot. So, um… I was really pleased with the result and it is a kind of favourite, favourite quilt of mine. It did actually win the [laughs], um, competition. I went on tour with, er, Grosvenor Exhibition but that wasn’t how, why I made it. I made it ’cause it was there in my head to be made and it wasn’t about winning a competition. But that’s it.
VM: So did you take some, did you use any photographs when you were planning it out, the quilt, or from memory?
BJ: Er, I started it from memory, um, but when I discovered that my husband had this photograph, um, I supposed I, I did print the photograph out. Um, but even then I’ve taken a bit of artistic licence with, er, with, um [background noise] the sort of background and, oh, the, yeah, there’s one other thing to, that I remember I did in the, um, background, the, the fields behind the lake. Because there were lots of these little cottages and, and even modern bungalows dotted around, um, I put in, er, a little chapel and one little cottage because I sort of imagined, well, maybe that’s the cottage where my ancestors have lived and maybe that was the chapel that they went to if they weren’t Roman Catholic, so that kind of stands for them. But it wasn’t a literal interpretation of where everything was. I did see, er, a little chapel in, in the photograph in the background but it wasn’t, er, er, I, I didn’t place it in, in the same place. So, yeah, so it was based on a, a photograph but not initially. I don’t usually draw my quilts out in detail, I’m what I call a back of an envelope person and that’s how I normally plan my quilts out. I see them very clearly in my head, um, I, I hate, hate having to draw them out. But you, working with Susan Denton’s method, and I have used it on two or three quilts since, you do have to draw the whole thing out, er, very, very accurately and, because you need to use it as a, sort of a, a template for all the little templates when you break it up into the pieces, so it is, er, an interesting way of working and one that I don’t mind in order to get the effect that, um, you know, that, that it achieves.
VM: I mean, you’ve explained one of the fabrics in it, but where did the other fabrics come from?
BJ: My stash, I think. I don’t remember… buying anything in particular. I have got, like, a box where I often buy fa, er, if I have fat quarters or I see scraps of things that might do for landscape or seascape quilts, um… so I didn’t actually go out and buy any of the fabric specifically for that quilt. Um, it all came out of my scrap bag, really, and possibly one or two things, when, whe, because it was started over at, er, at Cowslip Workshops in Launceston, she always has a big scrap bag, and Susan Denton herself if she’s doing a workshop brings a scrap bag, so some of the, the fabrics might have been pulled out that, but nothing was bought for it, so…
VM: Where does this quilt live?
BJ: Over the bannisters with most of my other quilts, if I haven’t given them away. Um… one day it will find its way onto a wall, I think. Can never actually decide where to put it. Um… I did have a lot of my quilts around on the walls at one time and then we had a spell of decorating and I got the feeling that perhaps my husband didn’t want as many quilts around as there were, so some of them never found their way back onto the walls. Um, I know this quilt is especially meaningful to my daughter, but I’d, I’ve got two children so I feel it’s their heritage and so I haven’t actually officially given it to my daughter, although I should really. But, you know, it might well be in years to come that my hus, my son is interested in it as well, I don’t know. I think maybe females are more interested in family history than males somehow, but I don’t want to assume that so, er, maybe in years to come I’ll, or maybe I, I haven’t written it into my Will, but maybe I’ll give to both of them, but if my son wasn’t interested then I know my daughter would love to have it and would love to have it on her wall.
I suppose because also she, she was the one who got me into the family history, but she was also there on that day and knows, um, the emotion that is involved in this quilt. It’s interesting, ’cause Susan Denton picked up on, on that when I was making it. I didn’t talk very much about it, but she did, she knew it was an emotional quilt for me to make; and I had a, a, a strange experience, er, three years ago. It was in, er, a local exhibition in Exeter and a lady came into the exhibition and, and the next thing I knew, um, she was being introduced to me and she had stood in front of that quilt and, and she wanted to, she said, ‘Is the maker here? I need to talk to the maker of the quilt,’ um, and… she had picked up on emotion. I had no idea how, how or why ’cause to me it’s just a picture and somebody else just looking at it would just see the picture, but when we got talking, we went and had a cup of tea, she had researched her family back to Exmoor and had had similar, had been on a similar journey to me and she’d picked up on that through the quilt, which I… I find that really bizarre, er, ’cause there was nothing in the statement, in the catalogue that would have, would have, er, you know, guided her to that fact. But, weird, I don’t know [laughs]. Can’t explain it.
VM: So it was displayed as part of an exhibition, er, for, for that challenge that it was first…
BJ: Yes, er, Grosvenor have a, a show out at, er, er, in Exeter every spring, um, and South West Quilters always introduces, you know, has a challenge for that particular, I don’t always enter it but, um, I, I just knew when, the subject matter that I had, it gave me an excuse to make, make this particular, er, quilt, um, and it did go, Grosvenor often take some of the quilts that are out there, they take them on, on show and it, I think I didn’t see it for another year, um, and, and whe, after it came back, it was about 2012, and the group that I belong to in Exeter had, er, they have a show every three years, so the next one I could put it in locally was in 2013 and that was where this lady had seen, seen it. So…
VM: Why did you choose this particular quilt for today?
BJ: I think because of the emotion, really, that went with it. Um, I, I’m not a very prolific quilter, it takes me a long time to make a quilt. Um, I don’t, although I love quilting, it’s my hobby, I seem to spend more time organising things to do with quilting than actually quilting, er, and a lot of the stuff I do by hand as well, so it takes a long time. Um… but this… quilt probably is the most emotional quilt that I ever made, so I think that’s why I chose it, um, because it’s unlike anything else that I, I’ve made. I’ve used Susan’s technique since, I’ve made a quilt of, er, Dartmoor and, you know, one or two other things, I’ve used her technique, but it’s, they’re just landscapes or seascapes, they don’t have the association that this particular quilt has for me.
VM: What, um, what’s the background fabric on the back of it?
BJ: Oh… [noise]. Can’t remember. Oh, it’s just a piece of purple batik and it shows the quilting up quite well. You can see that I’ve used different coloured perle threads, um… and that, that’s the picture of the statue, it, and that’s my daughter and myself standing there. So you could see, I took a bit of artistic licence with the, with the landscape. Er, there’s, there’s not quite so much. I wanted the, the bird up against the sky rather than just against the field, so it was almost as if I suppose I, I imagined it as if I was lying or sitting on the floor looking up at it, so it was against a sky rather than against a field as I saw it, or as it was in the photograph. Just gave it a bit more drama.
VM: ‘Cause I know you said, sorry, that you were making this 2012 to 2011. It’s, was this was something you would spend chunks of time or, doing or would you leave it for a bit, come back to it?
BJ: I think I probably worked quite consistently on this once I’d been to the workshop. Er, I probably, I was still working at the time, I wasn’t retired, um, and I probably… I have a feeling that I probably would have spent a half term, I was a teacher so I would have, had a chunk of time off probably in the February. It had to be in at the end of March, so I probably would have worked on it solidly through that half term to get it, er, finished. I know I, I, I have a memory of… working some evenings, staying up late working on it beca, after that because I was frightened I wasn’t gonna get it finished and sometimes I’m not bothered. If I, I often start on a challenge and if I run out of time, I’m not bothered but this one, it had to be in that, had to be done, er, and I kind of pushed myself a little bit to, to finish it. So…
VM: How do you feel about it when you look at it now?
BJ: I love it, because although… you know, it is, it is an emotional quilt, um… I just… you know, we all discover things about our families, they live in different times. My daughter has since followed up, she’s been back to the Famine Museum, which is three miles, er, down the road from this lake and she’s actually seen the letters of eviction, um, that, that were sent to our family to… you know, to get out. But it’s history, it’s not, it’s not, it’s, it’s a kind of personal emotion because I think I, I was more moved by these coffin ships, which my family had escaped, than any, anything ’cause it was, er, er, an element of history that I knew nothing about. I felt angry that these, these people had lived how they’d lived and they’d been evicted how they, you know, how it had happened and then they hadn’t made it across, across the Atlantic. It’s just so sad. But, um, you know, this is just one snapshot, one small element of what happened in, in Ireland at those times. But my family was lucky, they escaped and, and set, you know, started up afresh in England so I’ve got nothing to be personally sad about. But, but yeah, it’s, um… it is an emotional quilt for that, that reason.
VM: Tell me about how you first got into quilt making.
BJ: Ok, I suppose I had always sewn. My mother was a needlewoman and, um… I have a memory of being given an aunt’s sewing machine when she died when I was nine and I had her sewing machine and I was already making, um, clothes for, initially for my dolls and then, um, for myself. I, when I was ten, 11, I could make, um, a puff sleeve, a Peter Pan collar. I went to grammar school and spent a year making an apron. It was so boring, I hated it. I hated the needlework teacher, I was forever unpicking because I used to go ahead and the, when I went, took my work back to the next lesson she would say, ‘Right, well we’re, we’re all going to do this seam today so you’ve got to unpick what you’ve done so you can do the seam with everybody else.’
So I gave up needlework after the year, um, and I also, I was very into outdoor life, cycling and sailing and rowing, and although my mother was a good needlewoman, I didn’t take advantage of that. I did make costumes for carnival, um, but that was with an aim to win because it was, er, well, very lucrative pocket money. I grew up on the Isle of Wight and they had a lot of carnivals and, er, a friend and I made costumes to win and we just used to go around all the carnivals and, you know, er… we got quite a lot of money. Then went I went away, left home, um, by that time my mother had died so I’d lost my source of possible, um, inspiration and instruction. But, er, being a poor student, poverty led me to, to, to do dressmaking, um, and that’s what I had done and even my early, er, er, ventures into patchwork, it wasn’t quilting. In the ’80s were ver, sorry, in the ’70s were very much based around making, well, I made quilts for, er, both my children. Um, they weren’t quilted but we called them quilts, they were cot quilts, and, um, they were even spotted by a local, er, upmarket baby shop and, er, where, er, er, some rich grannies used to go shopping and the shop, er, keeper asked me to make some quilts for the shop, which I did do, it was a source of pocket money. But they weren’t quilted, they were just, um, all I knew was how to make a star over templates, a sort of English method, and then applique them onto a background. Um, I had learnt from probably magazines or library books, I don’t know.
It was, nobody taught me, um, and I didn’t think of it as a sort of hobby at that time, it was just something I did. I, I was doing pottery and weaving, um, Japanese flower arranging, all kinds of things. I wasn’t doing patchwork and quilting as a hobby. But then we came, er, we moved from Sussex to Devon in 1981 and I found myself kind of washed up at home. I’d always worked, I didn’t have a job, my youngest, er, child, er, had been used to going to nursery. There was, I couldn’t even get her into a local playgroup, so the two of us were sort of at home tearing our hair out and I saw an advert in a local art centre for a t, a ten week course on American patchwork and quilting. I had no idea what American patchwork and quilting was, um, but I thought, ‘Oh, if I sign up, um, I’ll maybe make some friends, I’ll get to know some people.’ The snag was I had a child under three and no-one to look after her ’cause I didn’t know anybody, so the teacher said, it was three hours a week in a morning, she said, ‘Well, you could come, say, for an hour and bring your daughter and find out what it is we’re doing and then you could take your work away and come back the next week and, and carry on.’ So I turned up for the class every week with a laundry basket full of toys. Luckily, my daughter managed to play in the corner with these, these toys without annoying every, anyone so I was able to stay for the three hours every week and it wasn’t a sampler quilt course as such, but it was each week we did a different technique, so it was all handwork, we weren’t allowed to mention the word machine… it was like a swear word, so it was all hand pieced, but we started off with putting squares together, er, learning how to mark out the templates on the fabric and sew along the line, so you didn’t have those papers and, er, as, as I knew it before, um, and… we also, er, learnt about quilting. I, that was completely new to me, um, so we did a couple of squares that were quilted. Um, at the end of the ten weeks, I had all these pink and green squares. I have no idea where the pink and green fabric came from ’cause I hate both, but I just took my scrap bag, I didn’t have any spare money to go out and buy fabric, so I thought, ‘What am I going to do with all these pink and green squares?’
I mean, we loved, we learnt, er, curved piecing, we learnt applique, all, all, all the basic techniques we’d learnt through doing these squares, so I wanted to, there were several of us who’s joined this course who wanted to go back but the teacher said, it was a lady called Nancy Gidley, she was an American lady and she said, ‘Well, no, it’s a beginners’ course and you can’t do it again, um, so I’ve, you know, I’ve got a new group of, er, students who want to learn,’ so a group of us found ourselves sort of washed up and so by now it’s probably late 1981 and we heard about The Quilters’ Guild, so we joined The Quilters’ Guild and, er, we found out about one or two workshops that were going on and we went on those. But basically we met in, er, one of the, er, people’s lounges and we kind of encouraged each other to, er, make some more squares and then we realised we could put them together to make a quilt, so that’s what I did. Um, I, I made this, this, er, huge quilt, um, all in pink and green, which I certainly didn’t want on my bed but looked very nice on the guest, guest room bed. Um, and really that was, that little group was the beginning of Exeter Quilters. Um… we, er, we, we met in this lady’s lounge for about six months and then she didn’t want to do it any more so we decided to rent accommodation and once you do that, you have to have a bank account and we decided we’d put some money into a pot and, for my sins, I was the one who went along to the bank and the, the chap at the counter said, ‘Well, if you’re going to be a group, you have to have a constitution.’ Um, I’d, er, I’m one, a minimal one for paperwork and complications so instantly I said, ‘Well, what do you mean, a constitution?’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘you need a statement of aims and you need a Chairman and a Treasurer,’ so I went back to the group and, um, somebody volunteered to look after the money and I suppose I was the self-appointed Chairman and, er, our constitution just was as single sentence that we aimed to promote patchwork and quilting in Exeter [laughs]. So, er, we kind of limped along, I say, well, limped along, for the next 20 years I was Chairman of Exeter Quilters and the group grew and grew and grew and, um, in, er, in the end I had to change the constitution to get myself out of being the Chairman. But, you know, it was such fun meeting other people and, um, and there was another group started up, um, er, in about sort of 1982. We thought initially it was started by four Guild members, so we thought it was The Quilters’ Guild. But then we discovered that if, if it was to… be part of The Quilters’ Guild we all had to pay the subscription and a lot of people couldn’t afford the subscription in, at that time. You know, they didn’t have the affiliated scheme that they have now and in a way it, it then broke away and became South West Quilters and the four original members kind of dropped out. Um… I think there was a, a, a question that the group was going to fold and I hate giving up on things and so for my, I remember going to a meeting and the first item on the agenda was that South West Quilters would cease to exist and I think I stood up and said, ‘No!’ ’cause we suddenly saw, um, this was a way of learning more. There was so much we had to learn and, um, if we had workshops and speakers and, you know, this, we were hungry for it especially down here in the southwest, so for my sins I got landed with organising the workshops and the speakers and I did that for the next, er, 15 years or more, um, and I, being… absolutely innocent, I took the American newsletter and I read all about these, er… quilters and I wrote to them and they came over. I can’t believe it. Er, I only realised in, with hindsight how famous they were but I had no idea and, um… so we had these big names for workshops and we also had quite a, a, a few well known people in the UK as well, people like Jenny Dobson and Katharine Guerrier, who have been, you know, teaching for 30 years or more. And so, you know, we learnt all these different techniques and, um, er, you learnt, you, you learnt of what you like and what you don’t like. Um, sometimes because I was organising the workshops I couldn’t always do them, but I could see what was going on and it was just exciting. Um… and then we had exhibitions and we were, er, discovered we could make money, um, through raffle quilts for charity, so again it was getting people together to do that and then, um… the, the, maybe the whole group would make squares or something and then they would put them together and they would come to my house, um, to quilt them. I was working at the time but I had a big frame set up at home and people used to come to the house. Um, I was so envious ’cause when I went out to work I used to think, ‘Oh, there’s a whole, maybe four or five people coming this morning,’ and I wanted to be there with them but I couldn’t. But they would come here and my elderly father in law would keep them plied with tea and biscuits and things like that and, and that was just exciting. It was just like doing something as a group, doing something enjoy, the chitter-chatter over a, over a group quilt and then the fact that you could make money for a charity at the end of the day was also exciting, we could do that. We made, as a group we made, um, quilts for, er, the, er, orphanage. It was, er, Blue Peter, um, sponsored an orphanage in Romania and we made all the quilts for that, you know, we just hi, hired a community centre and had a sort of factory turning them out.
It was just fun doing things like that so, um, just saw a, it opened up a whole world that I can’t imagine another hobby where that would happen, you know, I’d done embroidery and pottery and silk screen painting and people just, you would go to the classes and go away again. But quilting just opened up the world and a whole sisterhood with a few brothers dotted along the way, um, and it’s, it’s just been, you know, a very important part of my life over the last 35 years… and I’ve seen it happen with other people, well, several of my friends, some of them now, um, no longer with us, but people in their 70s and 80s, many of them, they were gener, a generation older than me and they maybe didn’t go out to work when their children were young. They, you know, they very much lived in, in the home and then maybe their husbands died in, in, in their late 60s, very few of my friends have got, you know, beyond 70 have still got their husbands, but I saw these women just, again, opened up a whole new chapter in their life. Many of them travelled, they went to exhibitions, they did things that they had never, er, done before. Er, just amazing that, um, a hobby, a group hobby like that could lead to that kind of, um, phenomenon, really. And, er, my, I myself have travelled, I, we’re not a great family for holidays but I, and I’m not very confident about doing things necessarily on my own, but if I know there’s going to be a group of quilters, I’ll quite happily go off. I went to New Zealand for three weeks, I didn’t know anybody on the trip, but I knew that I would be fine because we’d have something in common to talk about. I had a, had an absolute whale of a time, so even for me it’s, it’s, it’s broadened my horizons. I’ve been to Houston, I’ve been to Alsace three times, I’ve been to Nantes, you know, I would never have, um, done that, um, just as a sort of, um… if there hadn’t been a quilt show or something to go to, so yeah, it’s opened up the whole world.
VM: So this, when you first did this American patchwork workshop and then you went off and you formed your first quilt group, what, what sort of people were they, what sort of backgrounds were they from?
BJ: Um… they were, well, with Exeter Quilters, we’ve never had a male, er, person join so… it’s always been women. Um… and… until recently, I think they’ve mostly been either my age or maybe ten years, ten, 20 years older than myself. Um… with South West Quilters we had, er, er, more of a mixed membership. We had younger people and we also had the odd, er, male person join as well, we had a art lecturer come, um, who did some quite inspirational work. So, um… but Exeter Quilters now is a much bigger group. For many years, it was about 30, 35 people. Now we have about 80 people and we’ve got quite a few younger people, um, especially after, when we had our exhibition in, um, 2013. For the first time ever, we were in the centre of the city and lots of people came who… I think wouldn’t have just, they, they stumbled upon it, basically, they wouldn’t necessarily have gone to a quilt show if they’d even seen a poster, um, and we had a lot of pressure to… start a beginners’ class. I’m not a teacher of patchwork and quilting and, er, I don’t profess to be but there was so much demand, people leaving notes at the, the table, so a friend and I, um… we, we kept a register of all these people and we decided to run a beginners’ class over, er, the winter once a fortnight and I was going to specialise in handwork, she was going to specialise in machine work, so we took a variety of topics that we thought people needed to know, um, like a sort of skeleton course, and w, and so we were going to do the same thing but in, in, in different, um, methods, um, and we wrote to all the people that expressed an interest but we kind of thought that they would just want to come to one or two classes. In reality, they all wanted to come to everything so we were really, um, you know, we said to these people, ‘We’re not teachers but at least we can get you going.’ I mean, I was horrified, some people didn’t even know how to switch their sewing machines on. It was, it was amazing what they didn’t know and at the end of the course I felt that they could all go and there’s a lot of workshops here in the south-west and they could all at least, er, rock up to a workshop and, and not be able to be embarrassed because they didn’t know, you know, how to use a ro, rotary cutter or, you know, um, what, what, er, er, lo, lowering your feed dogs was on the machine or something like that. We’d explained all these sort of technicalities. At the end of the, the course, the group wanted to carry on but, you know, it had ta, it taken, er, a lot of time for my friend and I to prepare this course and the two of us, our gardens had been neglected and we said no, we’re, you know, you, you can go elsewhere now. But a lot of them then joined Exeter Quilters, so we had a sudden surge in membership and I think that’s coupled also with this general movement now of it’s ok to knit and crochet and it’s quite exciting. I think the Sewing Bee on the television has done a lot for, er, making, um, or, or it, it’s cool to do these things, whereas at one time it was seen to be either, you know, old fashioned or associated with poverty or something, you know? It’s, er, if you gave somebody a hand knitted jumper, er, 30 years ago they might have thought, ‘Oh, you know, what’s that?’ whereas now people treasure the, those things, so there’s been a whole movement and so we’ve got quite a few younger members now that have joined, so the group has swelled.
But the problem with that is it’s changed its nature because… you lose that intimacy with a big group and, um, for the past… nearly 20 years, I’ve had a smaller group that come to my house, er, once a month and the, the size of the group is determined by the number of people that I can get round my dining room table and also it specialises in applique so, and people like to come to that group because that’s when you, you’re chit-chatting. We always say we might not do much sewing but we put the world to rights. It’s like the old sewing bee and, and I really, I like that, that group and men, well, there’s two ladies who can’t sew any more but they still want to come to the meetings and we, we think it’s important that they still, er, be allowed to come, um, because it’s, it’s that sort of social, er, benefit really, um, and you don’t get that with a big group, so… yeah. I mean, that group started supposedly for a year. It was to support, we were asked to make some Baltimore, um, appliqued quilts for an exhibition down in Truro, um, and we, nobody locally, there weren’t any classes on how to do it locally. There, there was one out at Launceston and another one at Torquay, but for various reasons people couldn’t get to the classes, so the group actually started as a sort of self-help group. Um, between us, most people knew one way of doing applique and we showed each other different methods and we shared our books and, um, most people in that group managed to produce something for this Baltimore exhibition in Truro; and then I thought, ‘Well, that’s the end of the group,’ but they had enjoyed coming here, um, and so it’s carried on ever since [laughs]. So… it’s a sort of subgroup of Exeter Quilters really, ’cause lots of people from the outside have said they want to join and I’ve said, ‘Well, no, you have to be a member of Exeter Quilters.’ You know, it’s not a rival group, it’s a group within a group and that’s helped to kind of limit the numbers of people that, that belong to it and I think that’s quite important. I don’t want to make it any bigger.
VM: So you said that your mum had done, was a sewer. Um, had she ever done any quilting? Had anybody else in the family quilted?
BJ: I don’t remember. I do remember my grandmother having quilts. I used to go and stay with her at the weekends and I can remember lying in bed and following the patterns, but I think they were whole cloth quilts, so I think I just used to run my fingers along the stitching patterns. But I, I’ve got no kind of pictorial, er, memory of what they were like and my grandmother died, um, when I was 16 and the same year that my mother died and another close relative died and I think the family was just in turmoil and everything was just got rid of. Er, maybe that’s what people did in those days, they seemed to think that second-hand stuff was somehow, you know, it just had to go. I, I have no idea what happened to those quilts whatever. I don’t know whether my grandmother had made them, whether they’d been bought or, I’ve no idea. Um… but I certainly, you know, my mother did dressmaking and tailoring and she did beautiful embroidery and I could have learnt a lot from her but, as I say, I didn’t really. I, I was too much of a tomboy to… to do it at, you know, at, at a time when I should have done and, um…
I have a funny, a funny thing happened, um, to me in that… I was a bit of a rebel as, as a, as a, as a, as a child and, I don’t know, I think I was a bit of a disappointment to my mother. Well, that’s what she always told me. Whether she was secretly, you know, proud of me, I don’t know, but I could never do anything well enough, I could never look tidy enough, I could never write, um, you know, e, anything I did. I couldn’t play the piano like other people, whatever I did it was not good enough and, um… it, it hasn’t bothered me because it’s given me, I always knew I was doing my best and it was just tragic, really, that it was not good enough. But I only discovered, er, after we came to live in Exeter that my mother had had a dream of coming to live here. I have, I had no idea. I spoke to one of her, er, brothers and he said, ‘Well, you’ve just done what your mother always wanted to do,’ and I had absolutely no idea. I know she talked about wanting to go to the West Country when my brother and I left school, but I didn’t really know, apart from being west, I didn’t know what the West Country was and I certainly had never been to Exeter. But, um, I do remember once, um, kind of sitting on the steps in front of the cathedral. I don’t believe in an afterlife or anything, but I just had a sudden feeling that everything had sort of come right somehow, that if, you know, my mother was somewhere and it was just like it was ok, her daughter was all right, she hadn’t been the disaster, perhaps, that she thought she was going to be and, you know, she’d had two children and everything was, was lovely, and I just had this feeling of calmness. But then a few years later, something else happened in that there’s a church very near to the cathedral and, um… I had hired it one day, it’s, it’s a, a church that has been abandoned by the diocese, so it’s run by a group of trustees and it’s like an open space and people can rent it, so they do have some services there but it doesn’t have a resident vicar, and I had hired it to have a quilt show for, of my applique group one day… to make some money for something, I can’t remember what it was, but anyway it was a fundraising, um, thing. Er, just a one day show and the people that ran this church came in afterwards for a meeting and they saw this applique and they said, ‘Ooh, that’s interesting. Um, we’re going to, um… renovate the inside of this church. Would you be interested in making a banner for the…’
So I put it to my group and they said yes and we even had planned it out, we found the history of the church and we found there were several things about the church that were being covered up with the renovation. There was a 5th century Saxon church in the basement and there was a rather nice spiral staircase which they were going to close off for health and safety reasons, so we designed this banner to reflect, er, certain things that had been, you know, people wouldn’t be able to see; and then the church, the, suddenly got given quarter of a million pounds by English Heritage for this, er, renovation but with that came strings and one of the strings was two architects and when the architects heard about this banner, they said, ‘Ooh, er, well, we won’t just have one banner, we’ll have six banners and we’ll have them floating off the columns,’ and, er, they even specified the size and the shape of these banners and my group backed off. They, they said, ‘We’ve never done anything like that, it’s far too big, um… no, we’re not gonna do it.’ Um, I’m a Taurus, I’m stubborn but in a nice way because I don’t, I use my stubbornness not to give up on things and I thought, ‘Well, if I go along with this and, you know, we plan it out and everything, maybe they’ll come on board when it comes to making it,’ so I had endless meetings with these architects, designed, well, they, first of all I went backwards. Um, I had to come up with five sets of six designs and the, the church committee that ran it chose one particular set, so I then had these six banners of a specified shape and size, um, and I said, I wasn’t sure these architects were going to like it at the end of the day, so I said to them, ‘I’ll do a deal with you. I’ll make two and if you don’t like them, you, you can say there and then,’ and we’d already decided what we would do with these two banners if, you know, they didn’t want them. Er, so again the, I still couldn’t get the group on board so I beavered away, I made these two banners, I took them to a meeting of the church people and these two architects, really praying that they were going to say, ‘No, it’s, you know, a bit of old tat,’ or something. I mean, we didn’t consider ourselves textile artists [laughs], um, and, um… and one of the architects burst into tears and said, ‘Oh! It’s so beautiful, it’s so lovely,’ and I thought, ‘Right, ok, we’re gonna make the other four now,’ so, so I went ahead and did it and I did have one lady from the group who used to come once a week and help me choose the colours for these banners, because sometimes I just got stuck. But basically, I s, sewed them myself, it was all, er, strips of, er, fabric and then, um… appliqued [background noise] shapes on the top and… so… um… I, I, I had a deadline to complete them. I managed to, to piece them. Sometimes I was working 14 hours a day to make these things, um… and… I decided I didn’t have time to quilt them so a friend who has a long arm quilter, er, quilting, um, machine, she quilted them for me. I then went to the dedication, they had a dedication service. Er, I’m not a kind of religious person so it, you know, I just thought, ‘Well, I have to be there,’ the architects were going to be there. But in the middle of this service, I suddenly had this overwhelming presence of my mother being there and I just thought, ‘Yeah, you have come good. In the end, you’ve come good.’ You know, she would have been so proud to have seen that, um… so [inaudible] re, rebel and, you know, I know that s, you know, she, she would have, um… [emotion in voice] she would have been proud of her daughter and the, and these, um, these, um, banners are there now until they kind of fall to pieces. I, I just really didn’t have any idea, you know, what a big thing it was going to be [noise]. Um… there’s a picture of one of them there, er, floating and I’ve given, I’ve shown you that one. It’s a, a picture of, um, it’s supposed to be a landscape with three hares on it, sort of appliqued onto a circle and I have got this photograph because I was rung up two weeks ago by a man who has been the official photographer for a book on the symbolism of the three hares. There’s two academics have written this book and, um, he didn’t know this banner was, you know, one of the six in the church, he’d never been in the church before. He happened to visit Exeter with his mother, it was her birthday and he dropped her off in Marks & Spencer’s and just went to the church over the road and couldn’t believe that there was this banner with the three hares on and he, you know, found out who had made it and got in touch with me because he took a photograph of it and it’s actually going to go into this book; and he, he’d just come back from photographing, um, an image in Munster Cathedral and he said, ‘I could, I can’t believe that I’ve found, you know, these three hares in Exeter,’ so, um, again it was a sort of, you know, I was quite proud that, er, this had, this had happened. But, um… if somebody had said to me this is what you were going to do, er, as a project I would never have thought I could do something like that and, er, such a big scale and I’m disappointed to this day that I never managed to get my group back on board. But, um, I’m proud that I, I did it, um, at the end of the day. So, yeah.
VM: Does that show all of them [looking at leaflet]?
BJ: Yeah. There’s a leaflet with the, er, that they produced. Um… but it’s a bit like, I suppose, closing circles sometimes. One ne… one never knows. I, I don’t really believe in fate or, I don’t know, sometimes things are just meant to be and I can’t understand it. The funny thing is that one of the sets of designs was very much based on stained glass and would have involved lots and lots of, um, um, like, cathedral window and I know that the group, I could have got them to sewn on, to have sewn on miles of bias, black bias tape onto the design and it was just unfortunate that that set of designs, the architects didn’t, didn’t like. They chose the ones they did and my group just felt that they, it was beyond their capabilities. It wouldn’t have been, but… I just, I didn’t want to chicken out [laughs].
VM: That’s beautiful. So have you been able to motivate either of your children to do, to quilting?
BJ: Well, my daughter, because she didn’t have much of an option really. Having come to the classes at the age of three, she’d always done little bits of sewing and, um, in her early teens she did, er, do some machine, um, work and she actually won, um, the quilt, Quilters’ Guild Young Persons Challenge… I think it was about 1992, ’93. The AGM was in Blackpool. We didn’t go, I, I very rarely could go to the AGM because it was often when I was working as a teacher, you have to work on a Friday so I could never go to the AGM and the AGM, I remember, was at bris, at Blackpool and she sent this, this, er, wall hanging off and it got, um, first prize and, um… and she has done one or two things since. She’s made, er, er, cot quilts for, um, friends but I don’t think she’d describe herself as a, a patchwork and quilter. She really likes to do knitting, that’s her thing. But, um… yeah, so I, I, I’d like to think maybe in years to come she’ll perhaps do it in the way that I have and maybe make, make the kind of friendships that I have, er, through it. It’s not just the quilts but maybe also with a quilter as a mother she hasn’t got the need to do it. I think she… maybe she, er, thought that’s what mothers do ’cause it, when she, she left home at 16 and moved to Manchester and I made her a quilt to take, er, which she put on her bed, it was a quickie made on the machine and, um, quilted on the machine, it wasn’t anything, you know, it wasn’t an heirloom quilt, but she was amazed that other people were, you know, they were amazed that her mother had made this quilt, so when she came home, um, at Christmas she said, ‘Mum, I want to always take a different quilt,’ so she always took one of the quilts from the stash of quilts I’ve got because I think she wanted to kind of show off her, the, the quilts that her mum had made. I suppose she just thought that’s what other mums did, but then she realised that, you know, none of her friends, they had mums that made quilts, so she always took a quilt away with her so… [VM: Lovely.]. Yeah, er, and now she’s got her own, er…. er… child, and I did make a simple quilt. They don’t want qui, um, thick quilts these days, er, like we had, um, but I did make a little, er, a quilt to go on top of the pram when the little, um, my grandson was younger and I’ve since made him, um, a wall hanging. His name is Eleo and when he was born, um, somebody gave my daughter a bunch of sunflowers and she said, ‘Oh, Eleo That means sunshine and I’ve got sunflowers so I must always have sunflowers,’ and I said, ‘Well, Ruth, you can’t have sunflowers through the winter, but I will make you a wall hanging with sunflowers.’ So I, I did do this and it went into an exhibition, er, in Cornwall, the, in the September. He, the baby was born in May, in May and I finished this quilt in September, but unfortunately it was another one that was picked up by Grosvenor and it went on tour and we didn’t see it for another nine months, um, but now it’s in his bedroom so he’s got his sunflower quilt and it’s, and I like doing traditional quilts but this is, for me it’s quite contemporary. It’s got a lot of machine em, um, embellishment on it and beads and things like that, so he’s got his sunflowers in his room [laughs] and the, and the quilt is called Sunflowers for Eleo. So it’s not the sort of quilt that he would play with, but it’s there as a picture on hi, on his wall.
VM: You’ve talked a little bit about both hand and machine sewing. What, when do you choose which one to do for which and do you prefer one for certain things?
BJ: Yeah, it depends. I mean, if it’s traditional patterns, both, um, my children have got what I call their heirloom quilts. My daughter has got a Baltimore quilt, hand applique, um… and hand quilted. Um, my son, I made him an Amish quilt. Although I did machine piece it, er, it is hand quilted, so they have both got what I call their heirloom quilts. Um, I’ve since made two or three traditional quilts. I love, I haven’t, I wouldn’t make another Baltimore in red and green but I lo, I, I like the kind of wig roses. I, I like blue quilts and I often think I’ll make a, use a traditional pattern but do something in blue and white, but I’ve got a sort of queue of traditional things that I want do to. I’ve done quite a lot of Japanese applique, I like Japanese designs, so I like hand applique and I like hand quilting. I could do that in other people’s houses, I can do it in my lounge in front of the television, it’s kind of relaxing. Um, but on the other hand, I would never [noise] hand piece anything… [chatter]. Um, I would never hand piece anything, you know, as I learnt to do on my original sampler quilt course. I would always machine, even if it’s tricky. I think I’ve, I’m quite good at machine piecing. Er, machine quilting I find, well, you have to go somewhere, er, with a machine, it’s not a very sociable thing and I find machine quilting, I do do it but I find it a bit stressy because… it doesn’t always go the way I want it to go. I suppose I’m a bit of a perfectionist and when you do hand work, you’ve got more control about where you’re putting your stitches. Um, machine work sometimes, I, I suppose I’ve got better it over the years but I do find it a bit stressful doing it, so I like the result and if I’ve got to do something quick for a challenge then fine, it serves its purpose, bit it, I, it’s not relaxing.
VM: What does your husband think of your quilting?
BJ: It’s a bit he’s not here to ask, really, isn’t it? He’s al, he makes jokes about it and, er, he’s got a rather, you know, strange sense of humour. I suspect if somebody… asked him and wanted a serious answer, I, I suspect he probably think that they’re quite nice, but if you asked him in company he’d, he’d probably make some sort of rude remark [laughs], so I don’t know really. I just say, well, it keeps me off the streets and, um, you know, keeps me occupied. But on the other hand, er, it, you know, he gets sucked into helping put up quilt shows and, um… you know, doing stuff that probably he wouldn’t necessarily always choose to do. Um… but he supports me, so… you know, he has his music, I have my quilt making and quilts and I think at the end of the day he, I don’t think he’d be really, I think he would have divorced me by now [laughs] if it was really bad [laughs]. But, um… he doesn’t know how much, you know, my stash or I, I, if, if I ever told him how big it was and, you know, how much money was probably tied up in it, he might be a bit horrified but I don’t know.
VM: I was just about to ask about the stash. Where is the stash and just how extensive is it?
BJ: The stash, most of the stash is in the attic but, er, I did have a sewing room, we had an extension, a kitchen extension put on our house about, um, ten years ago and I, I knew I was going to be retiring so I, it, I o, also asked if I could have, um, a sewing room and the idea was it was modern, it was well insulated, I could, wouldn’t have to kind of heat the rest of the house when I was at home, um, if it was messy nobody else would have to look at it, so I enjoyed this sewing room for about three years and then my daughter came home, er, with her partner and, um, her child and my son, who lives locally, also had a baby the same week so they had nowhere to live, so everybody came to live in the house and the sewing room was cleared out to be the playroom and it is still the playroom. So there is one other room where I’ve got quite a lot of boxes piled up. Um, it, and I can’t work there, it’s too, you know, it, it’s too untidy a space and if I am sewing it tends to be on the dining room table in between meals. I do have a SewEasy with my sewing machine on which is in front of the Aga in the kitchen so that tends to be where I do my sewing [laughs].
VM: How much time do you think you actually spend quilt making?
BJ: Not enough time. Um, I could go several weeks and, and not touch a needle or get in front of a machine. Um, I’ve tried recently to discipline myself to always do some hand sewing and I had one or two UFO’s [unfinished objects] that had been lurking far too long, so I’ve set myself deadlines to get them kind of completed, really. Um, when you get to my age you’re aware of time running out so, um, I’m, I’m really concentrating on finishing things that I’ve started rather than starting something new. But having said that, I still like to go to workshops, not so much to come away with a finished quilt, but to learn a new technique or just seeing, er, sometimes I’m interested in see how other people work. I might never want to work that way myself but I, you gain more appreciation of, of their quilts, um, when, when you understand, um, you know, how they work. Um… but… yeah, er, if, if I’ve… if I’ve entered a challenge, which I, I, either I enter them voluntarily or I belong to two groups, contemporary groups who set challenges, and I like to have a go ’cause I, I believe it’s not, it’s not about winning prizes, it’s about taking part so I, I try and, um, do my bit either for an exhibition or there’s one group I belong to where we’ve done two group quilts for the Festival of Quilts and we’ve got another one, er, we’re starting now so I like to do my bit towards those. I can actually sort of discipline myself to sit down for, say, three or four days and work very intensively and get something started and made, and I quite enjoy that process. I wish I had more, I, ideally I’d like to have one or two days a week that I could set aside just for doing that, but at the moment with other demands on my time, I, I can’t, I don’t seem to be able to do that, um, but I live in hope. I’m actually going on a retreat in March. I’ve got a challenge, I’ve got something to do for the Grosvenor Show this April and if I haven’t started it by the time I go on that retreat, I know I’ve got those three days and we haven’t got a teacher or anything so I just know, provided I can take the right materials will me, I’ll be able to come up, I’ve got an idea in my head and I’ll be able to do it in, in that kind of timescale, so yeah, it’s either very, very slow and sporadic or very intense [laughs], so one or the o, one or the other, so no happy medium.
VM: You mentioned there the contemporary group. Have the types of quilts and quilting that you’ve focused on changed over the years? So have you got into different styles? Have you fallen out of love with certain styles?
BJ: Yeah. No, no, I, um, I still love the old, old things. I mean, I’d love to make some traditional pieces quilts, really. I, I’ve always loved the Carolina Lily pattern and I’ve often thought it’d be really nice to make a Carolina Lily, er, quilt, you know, a pieced one. I obviously like the applique, um, so that’s an ongoing love, but the contemporary one, I suppose it interests me because you can do things for presents or for challenges or competitions, you know, quite quickly. Um, I don’t think I’m particularly adventurous. I, I try with mixed medium paint and printing but I, when it actually comes to doing something I very rarely venture in, in, I, I feel I, I, I need more experience, I maybe need to have play days, I, when I sit down and have a, an idea in my head. I don’t feel confident about getting the paintbrushes out and, er, you know, all the sort of splodgy media and I quite like going to workshops and learning how to use them but I tend, you know, at the end of the day I, I, I stick with what I, what I know and I think, I suppose again, you know, I think, well, time might be running out and there’s no point doing something that you wouldn’t like at the end of the day and there’s lots of things that you do like. I love bright colours. I love the idea of using fabric and thread like an artist would use paint and so kind of creating pictures, um, if they’re sort of semi abstract. I think that’s what I probably, er, er, at the end of the day stick with, really, rather than getting into, um, all sorts of different, um… different media and things. I don’t know. Who knows? [laughs]. But, yeah, I think I shall stick with what I, what I know, er, rather than trying to get too, um, what I call arty farty.
VM: What, apart from sewing machine, what other technology equipment do you use?
BJ: Um, not a lot really. I’ve got the inevitable cutting board and rotary cutters. Um… I’ve got quite a lot of scissors, er, always trying to find the ultimate good scissor and then, when I’ve found a scissor that I really like, keeping it away from other people using it, you know, to cut up paper and card. Um… needles, I’m very hard on needles but, again, I’ve found, er… er, some French needles called bohin which, where I don’t kind of bend them in the first five minutes of using them so I, I, I’m quite fussy about the needles that I use. Um… I’ve got a number of sort of gadget I think I’ve bought over the years that people said, ‘You must have these,’ but at the end of the day, you know, you can manage without them so I don’t really think I’ve got a lot of technology. I’m not tempted to get a long arm quilter or even a sort of mid quilter. Um, I think if I ever did have a, er, a machine quilted by someone else, I’d let them do it rather than fork out all that money and then spend all the time that you need to practice to use it. Um, I’d rather let somebody who’s got those skills do it for me, um, so, um, I have got a computerised Bernina which I have to confess, I have only used twice, um, because my, my mechanical one is like may right arm, I feel comfortable with it, I don’t have to think about it, I don’t have think about how I’m gonna thread it or anything, it’s, er, second nature and, um… the computerised one, I bought it because I thought I was going to be able to do, um, stitch out designs that I wanted, not kind of patterns. But I didn’t ask the right questions when I bought it and the software, I could never have done what I wanted to do because I didn’t buy a high enough grade of software; and once I’d discovered that, I didn’t want to spend out another sort of five, six hundred pound upgrading the software. I just thought, ‘Your skills are such now that you could do what you want to do by hand without having to use, you know, the computer and, and all of that,’ so… you know, the, the, I feel guilty that I spent all that money on the machine and, and I do use it when the other one goes in for, um, servicing but, um, sometimes I think maybe I’ll, I’ll sell it on because I don’t use it to its full capacity. But, um… maybe I’ll go on a course one day to learn how to use it properly, but maybe not [laughs]. I’m happy with what I’ve got.
VM: Where do you get your ideas from?
BJ: Mostly they pop in my head. I try not to let them pop into my head because there’s, like, a stack building up there, um, but I suppose… they’re rarely imagination. They’re either based on a picture that I’ve seen or a card or a, a lo, a view that I’ve seen. Er, it might be loosely based on somebody else’s quilt but I would never copy somebody else’s quilt, but I might think, ‘Oh yeah, that’s really nice,’ you know, a tree against a, a background or something, I might get ideas. Um, but at the end of the day unless it’s a set pattern for a traditional quilt, um, they’re kind of, they’re my quilts, they’re unique quilts. Um, sometimes, like with the sunflower one that I made for my grandson, I just made it up as I went along. I just had an idea, I just saw a sunflower and I just made it up as I went along, so I don’t plan it out. Um, I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or not. I went, I went once on a course supposedly to, to learn how to make art quilts ’cause I thought there would be a, a, a, a, a proper way of doing it, um, and sure enough we drew out this picture and we had to sort of base it on, a bit like people doing A level art maybe, we had to base it on, um, a favourite quilter and I liked somebody, the work of somebody called Ruth McDowell and I’d taken along a book with some of her quilts in and I used some of the principles in this quilt. I drew it all out, I made the quilt, I hung it up in the spare room and my daughter came home once after she’d left home and I, I always used to tell her what I, what I was doing and I never talked about this quilt and she went into the spare room and she came running downstairs and she said, ‘Mum, mum, you’ve, you’ve not told me about that new quilt,’ and I said, ‘What new quilt?’ and she said, ‘The one in the spare room.’ I could not imagine what she was talking about and then when I went and looked at I thought, ‘Oh yeah, that’s that quilt that I made when I went on that course, supposedly the proper way of doing it.’ But that quilt had never entered my consciousness. It was, I looked at it as if somebody else had made it. It wasn’t my quilt and I, what I learnt from that was maybe there isn’t a right way. Everybody, there are different ways of making quilts and if something works for you, that’s the right way for you. Somebody else might look down their nose and say, ‘Oh, where’s your scale drawing,’ you know? Or, um… you know, ‘You need to do it this way,’ but, no, my way works for me and, and so I, I learnt a lesson from that. Um…
I suspect that I’m slightly dyslexic. I never had any problems with reading and writing but I need, I always approach everything in a very holistic way, I need to see the big picture and then break it down. Um, I remember going to a meeting once and, um, I had a quilt half made, um, it had a big hole in the middle and somebody who was a respected local teacher said, ‘Barbara, whatever are you doing? What, why, why have you got the outside of the quilt made and you haven’t done the middle?’ and I said, ‘Well, I changed my mind.’ I knew, I had an idea in my head of what the middle was going to be but I decided to change it and she, this person said to me, ‘Barbara, don’t you ever, ever teach patchwork and quilting,’ and I was a bit taken aback. I mean, I had no intention of teaching it then, but I felt as if I had done something wrong, I’d broken a rule, and, er, she said to me, ‘When you come to do that middle, er, you know, it won’t, it won’t go together.’ Well, when I came to do the middle, I was quite nervous. I thought I was gonna have a bit of pleating and tucking to do to get the, the middle fitted perfectly, no problem; and then some years later, this person came up to me and she said, ‘Barbara, I understand now how you make your quilts,’ she said, ‘and I kind of envy you because you know what your quilts are going to look like from the beginning.’ She said, ‘I don’t,’ she said, ‘I plan it all out and I, you know, play with the colours, I, I get my pens out and I, I colour them in and, and I make it and I don’t know what it’s going to look like until I’ve finished.’ I, to me that’s as alien as her, my way of doing it was to her and it’s just a different approach, just, and I think if, if I was going to teach patchwork and quilting, I would teach both. I would teach a very kind of logical, this is, you know, draw it all out, but on the other hand, if you’ve got a, a picture in your head, we’ll work from that and we’ll work backwards. I think different people have different ways that works for them and if you force people down the wrong way, you know, they’re, they’re likely to feel uncomfortable. Um, so it’s just, I’ve never read anything about, about this but I do know about, a little bit about dyslexia and how, you know, many artists work and often they’ll say, ‘Well, it just came into my head,’ and I know often, you know, A level art students and people doing degrees often struggle because they’re having to write about it, the kind of theory of how they came to create what they created, but they’re almost making it up because they don’t know where it came from, it just came into their head; and they have to write about the influence of, you know, this person and that person and there might be a subconscious influence but it’s not something that, you know, that they, that they find it easy to sort of recognise, so yeah, so I do it my way [laughs]. VM: You’ve talked a little bit about, um, making quilts for, for other, other people, for other organisations like your banners.
VM:What other sorts of projects have you been involved in?
BJ: Well, I suppose over the years I’ve been involved with a lot of, er, quilts for raffle and fundraising. Initially as Chairman of Exeter Quilters, I was kind of instrumental either in, if we had an exhibition we would make a quilt to raffle, um, the group would choose a charity or charities that we would support me but sometimes we were approached by other organisations to do, er, to make things. We’ve got several wall hangings in our local hospital, we’ve got one in the kidney unit that we were asked to do, um, and one year, um, the maternity unit, which has now been moved to the main hospital but it was, er, there was a little maternity hospital elsewhere in Exeter and this is in the late ’80s, um, they, I suppose people were becoming a bit more aware of how important it was, um, if babies were stillborn or born premature and they didn’t, they didn’t survive, how important it was that that event was marked, um, and, and they tried to make it as significant for the parents as possible, and Marks & Spencer’s came up with some money to furnish a room at the maternity hospital and it was called the [Heartease?] Room and they bought, um, a bed and some furnishings and curtains but somebody approached me to see if my group would, um, make two quilts, one a, a crib quilt and another larger quilt that they could wrap a baby in, um, and take, either the parents could hold the baby or they could ta, even if the parents didn’t want to do that, they would take a photograph of the baby wrapped up in the quilt. So, um, we did actually do some fundraising and we bought, er, a rather nice crib, er, um, for this room so the baby could be laid in the crib if the par, again, the parents, er, couldn’t handle it at the time. Er, the photographs could be taken of the baby in the crib or could be, er, held and, and wrapped, so we did that. Now, I might be, er, somebody who tries to get people to do things, but I am certainly not a dictator. I come up with suggestions, but it’s always, you know, if people want to get involved in those projects they can. With this particular project, there were nine, um, ladies in the group who came forward to do it and, um… they, we met at my house and it was only in the process of making this quilt and quilting it that I realised that about six of the ladies had actually gone through their own bereavements. Some had lost, er, miscarried babies, a couple had gone to full term, er, one lady in particular, she’d had a baby at home and, as happened in those days quite often, I, I suspect it was born with spina bifida. She heard the baby cry, she knew the baby had been born alive but, um, the midwife took the baby away and then it was registered as a stillbirth and I think quite often what happened in those days if the, er, baby, er, with, with a disability, an obvious disability was born at home, often the midwives used to smother them and then they were registered as a stillbirth, and this is what my friend had, had, had thought had happened. But she’d never been able to talk to anybody about it and, um, it was her firstborn and, you know, we shed tears over that, that quilt. Another lady had lost, um, a baby through, er, kidney, er, a kidney problem, a genetic kidney problem, and again had never really been able to talk about it in those, er, in those times and I think as, as time had gone on and maybe they’d had oth, other children, I think people often think, ‘Oh, er, you know, just get on, have another one, forget about that,’ but people never forget so, um, I became aware, I suppose, of that kind of healing process that doing something like that with other people, um, could, could bring and I’ve never forgotten.
Another quilt we were asked to do was for the NSPCC and, again, the quilt top had actually been made by a group of ladies in Japan but they’re not allowed to have raffles in Japan and they had sent it here and asked, um, if we would quilt it, a group of people would quilt it and then raffle it for the NSPCC. So, again, I asked a group of people if they would work on this quilt and they came, we put it on the frame in my house and they came and I was staggered to realise that a lot of these women had suffered abuse themselves as children, er, and sometimes as young adults. But, again, they’d never, it was bef, you know, before organisations like Childline and that, they’d never had anywhere where they could talk about it so there was a lot of, er, chatter and, er, tears and hugs and, er, I’d like to think it was, that they were able to move on, um, er, through the process of, of doing this. Um, again, I’ve never seen anything documented and sort of the theory of this, but I guess a lot of other groups, individuals would have experienced similar, similar things and again I can’t think of another hobby or a craft where… you know, qui, er, quilting especially is quite a mindless task, hand quilting, um, but a group of people sitting together doing it, um, you know, concentrating on their stitching, um, they’ve got that opportunity to talk about those things without, you know, it’s not interfering with what they’re doing, um, and maybe not it, you don’t see very many quilts around that are hand quilted now, everything’s done on the machine. Those sorts of opportunities perhaps of, maybe it’s a thing of the past now, I don’t know. I’d like to think that it wouldn’t necessarily be, that there still are some people somewhere. I, I spent last weekend with a group of, um, people in Cornwall making quilts for Cumbria for a group, some people who’ve been, um, flooded and have lost everything and although we were making them on the machine and, um… you know, we were quilting on the machine fairly basically, but again there was that opportunity for chit-chat, um, not of the emotional stuff like I’ve described there, but… you know, it’s, it is fun when people get together and they’re just doing things that are fairly simple, you know? Um… yeah, it’s, it, it’s good to kind of have that opportunity. Yeah.
VM: What do you… why do you think quilt making is important in your life or what’s it bring to your life?
BJ: I suppose it’s given me something to do. Um, it’s given me a hobby. I’ve always worked hard and, er, full time teacher, er, family, I’ve had foster children, I’ve had elderly, um, in laws to look after, a big garden, so… it’s kind of given me something creative to do, er, and something maybe to, after a busy stressy day at work and with the family, it’s something that brings you back to earth. I like the idea that time isn’t wasted, even, I mean, I do watch some television programmes but if, if, if they’re like a David Attenborough documentary where you’ve got to watch it, but a lot of programmes you can, you can sort of half watch, you know, you can sew and, or you can sit round with a group of people and chat and still sew, so it’s provided work for idle hands and I like to think at the end of the day that I’ve got something to show for all that time, um, rather than nothing. I know that quilts have given my family and friends pleasure. I’ve been able to make things, you know, for when we have a show, we have a sales table so it’s, it’s a way of helping other people and charities but doing something that you enjoy, so not just handing over a cheque, so that’s been good. Um… I’ve met so many people, er, so many friends, real good friends, um… in a way that, although I’ve got ex-colleagues from work, they’re not the same as the quilters somehow. Um… it’s, because I’ve been involved so much with running groups, I mean, with The Quilters’ Guild I’ve been area rep, er, twice, i’ve been the regional coordinator, I’ve met people. I’ve had to put myself out there. I’m basically quite a shy person. That might sound, er, odd that I’ve talked so much today, but I’m quite a shy person and the idea of standing on a stage and addressing an audience I find, even now, scary. Um, but I’ve had to… you know, find ways of doing it and, and it, it, it, so I know it’s kind of improved my own confidence and my own skills and organisational skills and things, so I’ve had to, you know, it, it, it’s helped in that way. Er, done things that I probably wouldn’t have done otherwise, so yeah, so I’ve got the quilts, I’ve got the sewing but I’ve got a whole lot more as well.