John F. Flynn




John F. Flynn




John F. Flynn


Marietta Womack

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Sandra Anne Frazier


Houston, TX


Karen Musgrave


Marietta Womack (MW): First of all, John, can you tell us something about the pieces that you've brought?

John Flynn (JF): Well, first, the reason that I sort of fell in love with quilting is that I think the hand quilting process is so soothing. So this is my favorite piece. It's just whole cloth quilt, you know, none of the annoying piecing part before you get to the good part. Developed as a stippling sampler, experimenting with the textures that you could develop with background quilting. I just really did enjoy the hand quilting process. I started quilting, mainly to help my wife, Brooke, with her quilting in the form of developing a quilt frame for her. And sort of in the process of developing and testing quilt frames, I found out how relaxing the hand quilting process was. And for several years, I just quilted on Brooke's quilts. She would piece the tops and I would quilt the quilts. Eventually she couldn't keep up with the piecing and I started doing the piecework. But the hand quilting is really the part of it that I love. So I do like to spend some time on a whole cloth project where the whole quilt is developed by the texture that the batting and the quilt stitching gives.

MW: Would you like to describe the other one?

JF: Oh, my other quilt is pretty special to me because it's the first class that I ever taught, and I never expected myself to be a teacher. My background is in civil engineering and I engineered this way to strip piece a double wedding ring. And it was that I developed what I considered clever technique that prompted me to volunteer to teach at the old retreat back in 1989. And surprisingly I enjoyed teaching. I really do like that. I'm not a public speaking type of person and I always was sort of shy and didn't think that teaching would be my thing. But it's so wonderful to be there, when the light finally comes on in the students' eyes. And the room brightens up and they catch the technique. And so the double wedding ring is special to me since that was my very first class, and I teach a number of classes now, but still the double wedding ring is my favorite one. And another favorite part of the double wedding ring is that it has such a nice quilting space in it and affords my other addiction and that's hand quilting. You get that nice place to create that texture.

MW: So you use this quilt in a class situation. Is that primarily why you made the quilt or do you?

JF: Well, you know, initially it was just making it for a wall hanging to have around the house during the holidays so the red and green, Christmas wedding. But it really has turned out to be one of my favorite quilts. A lot of things about it, I really like the quilting that I've done in it and the color combination as far as my quilts is probably my most imitated quilt. Students really pick up on, 'Oh, it's sort of the way the contemporary colors work,' and you get this secondary floral kind of an appearance. I really do have a lot of students that imitate this quilt. It's probably the sincerest form of flattery

MW: So we know your history about quilting, but was there any history in your family prior to your involvement with your wife's quilting?

JF: Not really. At my grandmother's house there was a Victorian era crazy quilt that us grandkids always used to fight over who got to have it on the bed. And that was like our early recollection, or my early recollection of quilting was always going to Grandma's and fighting over this crazy quilt. And of course they finally decided that whoever happened to be sick when we were there over the holidays would get to have the quilt. So then we always had to do a lot of sniffling and coughing when we got to grandma's house to try and get the quilt. My mother, I have three sisters, and my mother sewed all of their clothes, so there was a lot of sewing going on but not quilting. My mother made one quilt that I eventually pieced. I was like nine years old and in Cub Scouts. At Cub Scouts the den mother had this old Singer sewing machine that had been converted to a scroll saw. And we always would do our little birdhouse projects on this Singer. And of course eight or nine little Cub Scouts fighting over who gets to use it all the time, you didn't get much of a chance at it. And so I convinced my mother that I was pretty good with the Singer and she let me piece her quilt. So my mother made one quilt, but I actually pieced it when I was in Cub Scouts. And then she gave it to my sister and I never could figure that out exactly. But my mother was way too busy to make quilts. It is sort of a luxury to be able to, we think of it as utilitarian, but it's really a luxury to be able to afford the time to make quilts. I try to convince people and they say they don't have the patience for quilting. It actually will give you the patience that you need to get through life if you take it on.

MW: How have you seen quilting affecting peoples' lives?

JF: Oh, well, you can take my example of how I was in a pretty high stress position as a construction company owner. And one of the more interesting things that happened to me was that Brooke and I had actually for our own health, joined a local heart club at the local hospital. We would go in and get our cholesterol checked and they would do our lifestyles and tell you your true age. And it was interesting to me that five years after I gave up the construction company and took on quilt making and quilt frame manufacturing; I was two years younger than I was when I quit. [laughter.] So I gained seven years of my life just by taking on the quilting and relieving the stress. I've seen it open a lot of doors for different people. I certainly never would have had the opportunity to travel around the world teaching, and I know every quilter doesn't get that opportunity and I'm glad I got in in time to get that. I just think it's a wonderful community. I spent twenty-five years in public contracting and was on speaking terms with my competitors, but you come to quilt market in Houston and it's like a family reunion here, you know? Everybody's helping everybody and I know the other quilt frame manufacturers as well as I know any of my family members. And we're all in head to head competition for the dollars, but it's just not the way it is in other businesses. I really like that part.

MW: What is it about quilting; do you think that promotes that?

JF: It's hard to explain. I always, you know, think of hand quilting when I think of quilting anyway and then there's a lot of people that get a lot of pleasure from machine quilting. And I sort of broke down and changed my business to orient more towards machine quilting. I can remember back when I still owned my construction company and I was quilting for about ten years while I was still building bridges. And I would come home in the evening and I could feel my blood pressure go down when I picked up my needle. And in tense situations about all I have to do is slip a thimble on my finger. There's just something that is so relaxing and soothing about it. You know, it's a tactile kind of an art and I think people are a lot touchy-feely quilters. And I think it's just good for you. Can't explain it.

MW: You've talked about the direction we're going in in machine quilting. What other new things do you see coming along in quilting?

JF: Oh, gosh, well, I mean the improvements in just the peripheral stuff, the thread, every time you come to market there's more different varieties of thread than you can test over the year and the improvements in batting. Just through competition I think the sewing machine industry is driven by quilters now and what quilters want. And they're always trying to improve their machine with the intention of pleasing quilters. And of course we're getting into a lot of areas that are not exactly my favorite part of the whole thing, but the thread painting, embroidery, really high-tech things. I'm sort of into the low-end- hand quilting. But you see, I mean, people are always working on thimbles and I doubt if anybody's tried to improve needles for the last hundred years. And now all of a sudden there's a big competition in hand needles. I'm always admonishing my guild members who search around at big discount stores for bargain fabric that they should have been quilting back in the late 70's when there was no quilt shop around and they would know better than to do that because a quilt shop is really such a wonderful place; always the right atmosphere. And it's worth the money for me. I go to quilt shops whenever I get the opportunity. But I think it's interesting that all of the fabric industries and sewing machine industries are all sort of driven by this big quilt market now. And it's not just in the United States, it's worldwide. Still sell more sewing machines in Europe or home sewing clothing oriented, but quilting's catching up there. Pretty soon it's just going to be straight quilters. That can't be anything but good for us who are addicted to it.

MW: Do you find you have any special problems going into a quilt store?

JF: Not any more. Initially, especially when there wasn't a quilt store and it was a general fabric store and a large chain, a man looks a little bit out of place and clerks don't quite know how to handle that situation. There's no reason that men shouldn't be expert quilters. I've sort of come by it legitimately. My grandfathers on two sides of my family were tailors and so the needle and thread was no stranger to me. I've done half a dozen different kinds of crafts, woodworking, hand tied fishing flies, all of these things that require the intricate hand-eye coordination that's really the relaxing part of it that allows your brain to kind of rest. Quilting is the only one that you can really do in a family setting. It's such a nice family activity. My son was twelve when I started quilting and there was quite a bit of resistance at that time. Just, you know, because you don't want to go around and tell people your dad quilts. But he's really pretty proud of it now that I am known worldwide and travel and do this. He enjoys quilts and soon as I finish one there's a big argument between my son and my daughter who's going to get it when I die. I don't know, they're just waiting around; I hope they keep me around so I can make a lot more quilts for them.

MW: So how do you resolve that problem? Who is going to get them?

JF: Oh, I'm hoping to wear them out before I die. [laughter.]

MW: Wonderful. That's wonderful. What do you think makes a great quilt?

JF: Oh, I don't know. You know, there's quilts that just strike me as great, you know. There's obviously the wonderful works of art, some of the things like John Shannon is doing it or just very painterly and wonderful. But sometimes the oddest thing will just strike me. An old feed sack scrap quilt that the pieces were pieced and you can tell the love and care that went into the quilt. You know some quilts just; they just scream that, that somebody put a very careful hand to it. And I think that's probably what we all love about quilts. There's art to be appreciated, but the real thing about quilts for me is something that you can see that somebody really cared about it to make it.

MW: What do you think makes a quilt appropriate for a museum?

JF: I think probably what I'm looking for in museum quilts is something that really reflects the time that they were made in, like a Victorian crazy quilt for example. It should be just really well done in that time period. The Victorian crazy quilt is an obvious one, Amish quilts that reflect the lifestyle and really tell a story about that. There are a few of that real painterly type art quilts that I think deserve to be in a different kind of a museum, no the quilt as I see quilts museum. I guess if I were setting out to make a quilt that I thought would be in a museum, I would number one, you'd have to pick the current fabric trend and then, you know, something that reflects the current. I expect there'll be one or two millennium quilts that'll qualify as museum-quality pieces in a while. That's just he way I feel about quilts. Some people think that my idea of quilts is an old-fashioned idea, too traditional or something.

MW: How do you think we should best encourage young people?

JF: Oh, just let them do it hands-on. I've done several classes with young kids and they're really receptive to it. Especially boys and I think they're not allowed to opportunity, you know, 'This is my four thousand dollar sewing machine, don't touch it' stand up to a kid who wants to use it. That's a reflection on the sewing machine, not on the kid. And I encourage my children to just experiment with the fabric. You can't turn kids loose with rotary cutters, but you know they really will be creative if they're allowed to do so. It's sort of a shame the way the school system has gone. More of us have to get out and volunteer at the school system to teach kids sewing. They're just not the demand that will justify having the home ec. [economics.] teacher that teaches kids to put quilts together. So somehow you have to create the demand by going there and helping the kids that really want to do it. My daughter went through high school and applied three years in a row to be in a sewing class and there was never enough children to fill the sewing class. So she learned sewing at home and could have by the end of high school taught the sewing class. I don't know. If quilters want to do something worthwhile they can go out and volunteer at a school. You don't have to do much just show them the machine and how it runs and the kids'll create quilts, magical.

MW: In what way do you think your quilts reflect your community?

JF: Some of my quilts have a western influence in that, you know, in Montana one of the quilt communities that's often overlooked is the Native American community and the star quilts and the whole give away atmosphere. In my feathered sun quilts I've certainly made an attempt to bring the Native American kind of influence back into quilting. Buffalo robe style quilts. I think the way the world's shrinking, you know, it's hard to maintain your identity as a Montana quilter as opposed to a Vermont quilter as opposed to a Florida quilter because I travel to all of the quilt shows and you go to a quilt shop in Vermont and they have the horse fabric and the cowboy fabric just like we have in Montana.

[announcement over the loudspeaker.] So you know that's, I mean, Houston is a wonderful thing. And the International Quilt Market is a wonderful thing. But I don't think anymore you can look at a quilt and say that's an Ohio Amish quilt and that's a California quilt. Because we all gather here and the shop owners all come here and it's totally influenced by this international market now. Which, you know, it's kind of a wonderful thing. I think there's still a little bit, but it's a lot more subtle than it used to be. You can regionalize...[inaudible]

MW: You mentioned something that a lot of people might not know about and that's the giveaways. Could you explain that a little more?

JF: Oh sure I'm not a tremendous authority on giveaways although I live in Montana and there are seven reservations with nine of the Indian nations and it's a tradition that goes back long before the west was settled. In honor of the occasion of your being presented with an award, you would give away a variety of gifts. Mostly in the olden days they were in the form of a painted buffalo robe or a painted elk robe or something like this. And I think it was probably the influence of the missionaries and the missionaries wives that arrived in the west just about the time that buffalo were pretty much eliminated from the plains and taught these plains Indian women to make quilts that resulted in the quilt giveaways. If you study a Sioux star quilt you would see that the imagery of that eight-pointed star is much the same as the imagery that they painted on the buffalo robes. The piecing technique is a little different than the painting technique. And the whole idea of the giveaway is so foreign to us it's hard to understand that there was a time when on the Ft. Peck Indian Reservation which is where I got a lot of information for my feathered sun book that there was a time that the Indian Agents had made it illegal to quilt on the Ft. Peck Indian reservation because this tradition of these women that were just living in poverty spending all their resources to get cloth to make quilts so they could give them away. It did not fit with the program that the government was trying to promote for them to become self-sufficient and so they just said that there would be no more quilting. The women organized secret quilting societies and they would go out into the country and quilt on the sly and then when they had their giveaways they would give away. There's a museum exhibit; they travel in the country, called "To Honor and Comfort." If you can get to see it it's really wonderful. You talk about young people getting into quilting. The tradition for these Native American high schools have their basketball tournaments is for each player on the team to give someone on the opposing team that they respect a quilt. So during the halftime of the basketball tournaments there's always quilts laid out on the floor and then they go and hang them on the opposing player or coach that they most respect. It's really quite a--

MW: Sounds like we get emulated. You mentioned your books, how did you get into publishing?

JF: The double wedding ring was of course my first book and I really did enjoy the teaching of the double wedding ring. But it's hard in a six hour class to dispense all the information that people want and so I got bigger and bigger handouts and pretty soon it was book size and I tried to peddle it around to some people. I have two sisters in the advertising business and we finally gave up on trying to get someone to publish my book and just published it ourselves. So that was my first book and then I did a book on the trapunto and stippling technique. Two books since then, one on the Feathered Sun which is about the Native American quilts and one on braided borders that's since gone out of print, but another technique unique to myself.

MW: Can you tell us more about that technique? At least your development.

JF: The root of it was, you know, we talked about whether I had quilters in my family and I really didn't. My grandmother did a lot of braided rugs, so we had all these wool braided rugs. I really wanted a quilt that reminded me of these braided rugs. It was a strip piecing technique to make a braided border actually. And then of course the border developed into whole quilts after that. But I was looking for a piecing technique that would look like these braided wool rugs. The mathematics was what puts most of my students off. We do measure our strips to the thirty-second of an inch. A lot of quilters especially early on weren't up to the task. So I get accused of beating up on a lot of quilters. Of course it doesn't do any good to measure your strips up to a thirty-second of an inch if you're not going to sew a perfect quarter of an inch seam. So I am quite the task master about that.

MW: What has happened to the quilts that you've made and those of your family?

JF: Well, I'm hoarding my quilts. Actually, I travel with as many as I can carry when I go to different guilds around. And I used to be able to carry all my quilts. Unfortunately I can't anymore. I've gone to making half-size reproductions of some of my full-size quilts just so that I can get more into my suitcase. So far none of them have disintegrated and I do have the one Victorian crazy quilt that of course the silks have gone brittle in. I really have a long running argument with my three sisters about whether this should go into the local museum. They really want it and I would like to relieve myself of the responsibility of taking care of this quilt that has chunks fall off every time I open it up. So I think in that case it would be a good idea for us.

MW: What do you think is the best way for quilters to learn the art?

JF: Oh, just jump right in. I have a lot of students that I really have to encourage that you have to get in and get your feet wet and don't concern yourself about whether all your corners are going to match. And don't concern about whether you've picked the perfect fabric. There's always the next quilt. Get on with it and find the part that you enjoy the most. And some people just like putting the fabrics together. Myself, I can hardly wait to get the top done so I can start quilting. I guess the whole art of quilting is so diverse, if you can't find something in there that you really can't wait to do, then there's something wrong with you. I see too many people that are so hesitant and don't want to pick out their fabric and don't want to cut their fabric because they're afraid they'll make a mistake. Well you got to get in there and just make a mistake. I don't say rush through the process, but I'd say quit hesitating. Pick out the fabric by instinct. Close your eyes and pick it out. Do something.

MW: How do you think we should preserve quilts for the future?

JF: I'm not one that is for preserving quilts. I'm for using quilts. I have all of my quilts. I don't discriminate. This one doesn't get used. This one gets used. I put them on the bed; I have guests come to my house, whatever quilt they want on their bed they get on their bed. That's what they're for in my opinion. I don't make any quilts that aren't intended to use. If they're small size like this, you throw them over your lap and sit and watch television. The antique quilts that I get most involved with are the ones that were loved and used and put together with a loving hand and somebody enjoyed the use of them. I really think you want to see a quilt in its pristine condition, take a picture of it right after it's done and keep the picture.

MW: What is your next quilt going to be?

JF: Oh, gosh. Sometimes the business gets me down a little bit, Marietta, and I have to do a quilt for a book that I don't want to do. I'm currently working on three charity auction quilts that are going to go through the year, so I expect that I'll be working on those quite a bit. The quilt that I want to do is sort of a pictorial quilt of my father and his construction crew. And it's a real departure for me since I don't do appliqué and you know this is a quilt that is going to require some planning. I don't think I'll get right to it. like I say, there's along with earning your living in the quilt business there come some requirements that we don't all look forward to and one of those is, I think, over this year I'll have made five charity auction quilts and that doesn't leave me a lot of time for other things with my traveling and all the shows and make quilt frames.

MW: So how are you preparing yourself for this appliqué departure?

JF: Oh, I do a little appliqué on each quilt, you know. I can get through a small piece. And I try to network when I'm at quilt teaching venues with appliqué teachers and see if they'll give me a little hint now and then. I can't explain the fact that I am so uncomfortable with appliqué. It seems like needle in hand just like quilting but it's something that I'm not able to concentrate. I don't know if it's something I'm doing wrong or what. But I'm working on this because I really want to do the quilt and I'll be able to handle it somewhere along the line.

MW: We're getting near the end and what burning legacy would you like to leave to the quilt world?

JF: Oh, God. [laughter.] I don't know. I don't think I could ever consider myself as the person who broke the gender barrier in quilting, but I'm hoping that I'm making it a lot more comfortable for men to quilt. I just don't think that--the reaction I get is softening. Used to be pretty dramatic when I would visit with men about quilting. It's such a relaxing activity and there's a lot of men that need the relaxation. I kind of like to think that I made the math a little less scary for some people and brought a little engineering into quilting. I think I revolutionized the quilt frame. Something that, you know, people have been quilting on frames for four hundred years without the benefit of an engineer. Engineers have designed quilt frames and quilters have designed quilt frames, but never a quilting engineer. And there's some subtleties that people were missing. But I think the main thing probably; my vision for myself would be make men more comfortable around quilting and quilters. Quilters are really nice people and men should hang out more.

MW: Well thank you, John. This is John Flynn's interview and we're concluding at 10:50 in the morning.



“John F. Flynn,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 16, 2024,