Zena Thorpe




Zena Thorpe




Zena Thorpe


Jana Hawley

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Sandra Anne Frazier


Houston, TX


Julie Henderson


Jana Hawley (JH): Hi, I'm Jana Hawley and I'm interviewing interviewee number eighteen, Zena Thorpe at the Houston International Quilt Festival. Okay, Zena, would you please show us the quilt you brought. Tell us about it.

Zena Thorpe (ZT): Well this is made for a Millennium Challenge at my quilt association. As you can see - there is the year 2000. All of our members - I hope lots of our members are making a Millennium Challenge. This is mine. It has to be finished by January. It is not quite finished yet. There is still a bit of quilting I have to do here.

JH: So you made it.

ZT: Yes.

JH: Would you give us a description of it, please?

ZT: I shall call it " Y2K a la William Morris." William Morris was a famous artist at the latter end of the last century. He was very famous for his very decorative furnishings: wall hangings, draperies, etc. He felt that we should beautify our lives and adorn our lives with different things around us. He was very concerned about the use, at that time, of machine-made things: machines in general, and furniture and everything. He was very upset about that and he and a few friends started The Arts and Crafts Movement. He felt that if it's worthwhile at all it must have been made by hand. I'll get into trouble for this, I know, but that's what it is to me. I really think it should be done by hand to be worthwhile to me. I know there are people who enjoy working at the machine but I don't enjoy working with a machine. I enjoy doing handwork and so to me, to be worthwhile it has to be made by hand.

JH: And the technique that you use?

ZT: It's all hand appliqué and hand quilted. Well, the little pieces around the border are done on the machine.

JH: Does this quilt have particular meaning to you?

ZT: Yes, it did. I'm a great admirer of William Morris' work. I really like it. I do believe that we should beautify our lives with the things around us; all our furnishings and such should be all adorned with flowers and stuff to make us feel happy and content within and feel that our lives are beautiful. Let me explain also that I have a Y2K bug on it as well. [laughter.]

JH: How do you plan to use this quilt?

ZT: I don't know the use of it. It's just made for the Millennium Challenge at the San Fernando Valley Quilt Association in California then I'll probably hang it on the wall somewhere.

JH: What do you see as the future for this quilt?

ZT: I'll probably just put it on the wall or something. I think it's quite important that we're around at this time at the change of the old millennium into the new millennium, to the third millennium. We should commemorate that some way in our own medium. My medium is fabric.

JH: What's your earliest memory of a quilt?

ZT: I didn't get into quilting until--Well, I did do piece quilting a long time ago. I had a friend who was teaching quilting and she said, 'You ought to make a quilt.' I said, 'Well, okay.' I started making a Grandmother's Flower Garden with I don't know how many pieces, 1800 pieces or something like that. I was so proud of it. But it really was quite awful, with all sorts of polyester blends and everything. But I was very proud of it. But I thought, 'Oh, this is a bit boring, doing the same thing over and over.' All these millions of different hexagons, and I thought it was rather boring. Then I made a log cabin quilt, and again I thought it was a bit boring. I really didn't get into quilting until I started doing pictorial appliqué. When I found that I could create a picture with fabric then I was turned on to quilting.

JH: What inspired you and what maintains your inspiration?

ZT: I started out quilting--pictorial appliqué--I'm a member of my local historical society and it was our centennial in 1988. The historical society said, 'What can we do to commemorate our centennial?' I said, 'Let's make a quilt.' Because I had suggested the whole thing I was put on the committee. Eleven women, I think it was, made this quilt with all sorts of pictures of the local area. I was given the little old pioneer church to do. I said, 'But, I can make log cabins but I can't make churches.' I thought since it was my idea I had to have a go, so I had a go at the church. I really quite surprised myself. It actually looked like the church when I'd finished. It was a little church built in 1903, so it was quite ancient, for this country, for California. Then Ruth Grant and I made a second quilt to raffle off to benefit the Centennial Celebration. After we'd finished, we said, 'Well let's send me to a competition. This is great.' It was a bouquet of roses, and it turned out very nicely. It raised quite a bit of money as well. So we sent it to Houston, to the International Quilt Festival and it won second place, I think--in group category, because two of us worked on it.

JH: What year was that?

ZT: Eighty-nine, probably. When you start winning prizes that really turns you on, doesn't it? So I decided it was time to make a quilt for myself, a pictorial thing. I made an autobiographical quilt. I think that everyone before they die should create an autobiography. If you can write, you write it down and if you're a musician you compose a symphony. Fabric being my medium I decided I would make a quilt. So that's my " To England with Love," which won the Viewer's Choice here, and three more awards--four more awards, I think--in 1990. That was very gratifying. But you know, an awful lot of emotion went into that, because it has all sorts of pictures of my early life in England. I think when a lot of emotion goes into something it jumps off and grabs people then. So I think it was the emotion that went into it that jumped off and grabbed people. People were delighted with it and they gave it the Viewer's Choice at that time.

JH: If we could digress for just a second, I'd like for you to see if you could remember what year you started that Grandmother's Flower Garden quilt, your first one.

ZT: Probably something like eighteen years ago. My youngest is twenty-two and he was probably quite a small child. Yeah, probably about eighteen to nineteen years ago.

JH: Okay, so 1981, something like that.

ZT: Yes.

JH: Describe some of your other quilt related activities, besides quilting, but related to quilting.

ZT: Related. Oh, well we go off on a sleepover once or twice a year. One of eight women in my mini-group has a cabin so we go off to the mountains and that's a lot of fun. But I don't know if there are that many other quilt-related activities. I just finished two years as the co-president of the San Fernando Valley Quilt Association, so that's kind of--

JH: Does this engulf your life? Does quilting engulf your life?

ZT: No, not entirely, no. Almost.

JH: How does it affect your family?

ZT: Well, it's a bit of a problem. I don't want to go anywhere, you see. My husband likes to go to movies and do something but I don't like to go anyplace. I'd much rather sit home and quilt, you see. He said, 'People are living out there, you know.' [laughter.] But I really don't want to do anything much else but--I guess it's a creating thing, isn't it, when you start creating you just have to do it. JH: Have you taught your children how to quilt?

ZT: No. They don't seem to be terribly interested. The younger girl is twenty-six, I think twenty-seven, and she would like to quilt but she has two small children. You know, just as I didn't have much time when the children were small. In fact, I've had to say many times that I'm glad that I didn't discover quilting until the kids were getting grown up. I think I would have been put away for child neglect. [laughter.] Abandonment or something like that because I'm afraid things have to wait until I've finished this length of thread.

JH: Tell me what makes a great quilt.

ZT: For me, it has to draw me in. It has to say something. The sort of all over patterns I think look great on a wall, but it has to be something that I want to go up to, examine this area and that area. It has to draw me in and tell me something that I didn't know before I went there, you know.

JH: So which one is your best quilt, your greatest quilt?

ZT: My favorite, I think, is Pageantry actually. It tells the story, well the history, of heraldry, of development in heraldry. Heraldry was a system started in about the year - I think it was the eleventh or twelfth century in Europe with a lot of different devices which people would use to denote their whole family. It actually started with the lord of the manor and he had all his men on the battlefield and they would come from one village and they'd come from another village and they were always scrapping. They didn't know who was who, and who they were supposed to kill. They started putting them in different colored tunics which they called " Coat of Arms." That's where the term " coat of arms" comes from. Very colorful. It developed, and they got more and more ornate. The early ones were very simple, but they got more ornate and used different mythological creatures and this sort of thing in the devices and designs and the whole thing developed into an art form. So Pageantry tells that story. Here again, it's telling you something. This is what I like about a quilt--to tell a story with it.

JH: So how do you research your stories or how do you become inspired by the stories?

ZT: I usually go along to the library. A couple years ago a friend asked me to make one on Wales based on heraldry. He asked me to make a heraldic banner for him on Wales. He's a Welshman. So I went to the library and said, 'What have you got on Wales?' We researched the Los Angeles library and they found me all sorts of books on Wales. I always do that sort of thing.

JH: Do you do commissioned work?

ZT: Not really, no. I have done that only twice. I want to do my own things. I don't really want to do that. It must really appeal to me. Because he wanted dragons and stuff like that--and the heraldry thing appealed to me, I would do that one. If someone came and asked me to do one on animals, I'm not an animal lover so I wouldn't do one on animals. So I do something that interests me.

JH: What will happen to your quilts?

ZT: They'll probably finish up on the garage floor mopping up oil. I don't know. I've got four children and one girl said, 'Oh I want that one.' Another girl said, 'Oh I want that one.' The boys are not bothered. I don't really know. I don't really care. I enjoyed making them and I don't really care what happens to them.

JH: You don't?

ZT: No. People say, 'Haven't you gotten them insured?' And I say, 'Well, no.' I don't make a quilt because I want to have a quilt; I make a quilt because I just enjoy the making. I want to make it. When I've finished making it, that's it, I'm done. That's why my favorite is always the one I'm working on right now.

JH: What makes a great quilter?

ZT: What makes a great quilter? I think someone who just has a story that they want to tell. This is the interesting thing I think, generally, about quilts is the folk art. By folk art generally we mean it tells you something about the maker's life. I'm not the least bit interested in making something from someone else's pattern, for instance. It's not mine. I just want to tell--not so much tell my story--I just want to do my own thing.

JH: I want to come back to this quilt for just a second. You say that this is a Y2K or Millennium Quilt.

ZT: Millennium Challenge, yeah.

JH: You've got the bug as one of the icons.

ZT: The Y2K bug.

JH: Tell me what other icons you have going on here that spoke to you about Y2K.

ZT: Well, just the " 2000" which is all sorts of fantastic, and by fantastic I mean fantasy, type of flowers. They're not any particular flowers, but I just love the idea of this fantasy foliage done the way that William Morris did. You've probably seen some of his work. He just did glorious stuff that's twined and wound around each other; just stuff that made you feel good and feel entertained. I'm not sure really, it shows the entwining of our lives and how complicated, and yet my life has been super, very entertaining; so that's why I do something entertaining, I suppose.

JH: So was this freehand to you or was it designed freehand?

ZT: I will pick up designs--maybe I'll go to someone's house and they've got a great flower on the wallpaper and I'll say, 'Can I copy your wallpaper?' I make drawings and copy things here and there.

JH: Have you used any other medium for your artistic expressions besides fabric?

ZT: No. We did start one time, my husband and I, doing stained glass. Oh I thought, 'This is the pits.' I finished up with a pile of grass--if something goes wrong with my quilt I can always fix it; put a flower over it or a leaf over it and fix it. Stained glass-- once glass is gone that's it. It's broken and you start again from scratch. No, I hated that. What I like about fabric is it's so flexible, isn't it? I can make it do what I want it to do, and glass doesn't bend for me and it doesn't go where I want it. I make a wrong cut and that's the end of it.

JH: When I see this quilt I see beautiful colors that are popping out at me. How did you choose your colors, and tell me about the colors that you used?

ZT: Well, actually the dark background is just some fabric that I had left over that I had to use up. I'm awfully tight. I don't spend a lot of money on fabrics, and so I had to use up this piece I had left. I do like the idea of color on a dark ground, as well. Then the rest of it--this was the challenge fabric. It's a very wavy, weird sort of fabric that to me signified the ups and downs of the century. That's what I made the Millennium bug with. I just like a lot of color, I think.

JH: Is this indicative of your quilts?

ZT: Yes. I would like to make a quilt in beautiful pastels, and I start out and it always seems to finish up with bright colors. I guess delicate is not in me. It's just not. I have one here Frogmore which when I started out, was going to be a very delicate, very fragile-looking thing. It's really not, is it? It finished up quite bright colored flowers, so that's it.

JH: Did you start with 2000 and work around it, or did it build/weave in with your design?

ZT: Yes, I started at one corner and just gradually built it up.

JH: You started in the bug corner?

ZT: No, I didn't. I didn't have a bug on it at first really. I'd got it all finished and my husband said, 'Well you haven't got a Y2K bug on.' So I had to put him on afterwards. But I've got a drawing; the whole drawing is drawn beforehand.

JH: What role will quilts play in American lives for the new millennium? Or, let's start with the past millennium and then move forward into the new millennium. How will it evolve?

ZT: I very much hope that women will still keep on doing handwork. I am a bit concerned that, you know, 'It has to be finished by tomorrow so I've got to put it on the machine.' I think it's rather a shame, because we are losing a lot of the old crafts that we had, like tatting, for instance. Very, very few women know how to tat, and not that many know how to do crochet. I think we're losing these crafts because, 'I have to have it finished by tomorrow.' It's a shame really. I hope that there will always be a group such as the women who quilt who will want to do the handwork that puts something of themselves into it rather than just what a machine can crank out.

JH: What's the deepest emotion of you that goes into your quilts? What's the something of yourself that goes into your quilts?

ZT: I think probably--I don't want to admit this but showmanship. [laughter.]

JH: I see why.

ZT: I like to be on stage I think.

JH: A little competition in you?

ZT: Probably it's showmanship.

JH: Do you want to talk about that some more?

ZT: We have to be honest, don't we today? [laughing.]

JH: Absolutely. Want to talk more about that?

ZT: No, not really. I think I--I was a youngest child and the only girl and I like to prance on stage a bit. Probably that's my reason for doing showy stuff.

JH: Have you ever been a quilt teacher?

ZT: I do. I do teach classes, yes, in pictorial appliqué and English country garden flowers.

JH: What role did quilts play in the last millennium, in women's lives or in people's lives?

ZT: They were an outlet for creativity, I think. I tell this story when I talk about quilting. Henry the Eighth had twenty-three quilts. I think it was, made as a wedding gift for wife number five. These were all beautifully, heavily embroidered with gold and silver threads, all individually embroidered silks and stuff. So women were doing that sort of thing hundreds of years ago. Women have always wanted to tell their stories. I think quilting allowed them to tell their stories when women didn't have an outlet very much then. Women generally could not read and write. They were not educated, generally. Of course there were a few women who were educated. This was a way that they told their stories. This is what their legacy is, that their stories were told through their quilts very often. They used their quilts as a political expression very often, as well, didn't they?

JH: Will those same values go forward? Or do you think that's changed?

ZT: I think we've got a bit better outlet for our political views, haven't we? Jean Ray Laurie's quilt is very interesting on that, isn't it? She really let the senator have it, didn't she, who told us what should be done with women who get too uppity. We still seem to have a need to tell our stories. How many women make a quilt to commemorate the birth of a grandchild or their parents' fiftieth wedding anniversary? This sort of thing--we still seem to have this need to tell our stories. I think we probably always will; probably through our quilts, too.

JH: Why is it a women's thing?

ZT: Well, originally it was that all little girls were taught to sew because it was thought that sewing instilled the very wifely virtues of neatness and patience and acceptance of routine that all wives should have. But now I think we've really accepted it as a creative thing and it's not just an acceptance of routine. But I don't know--there are a few men muscling in now, aren't there? Let's face it; it is very largely dominated by women. But I don't know why. Well, yes, I do know why, because all little girls were taught to sew, which is not the truth anymore, is it. But it is an outlet for our creativity. I guess it's still part of the nurturing thing. We still feel that we have to wrap our children and cover them up in something cozy. It's all symbolic in that, isn't it?

JH: So is that one of the purposes of the quilt? What purposes do quilts have? How will they be used?

ZT: Probably always as a sort of an expression of nurturing--I think it's in the genes. This idea that we have to wrap people up and make them feel cozy. I think probably that's one of the reasons that we carry on with quilting.

JH: Do you use your quilts that way?

ZT: No.

JH: They are wall pieces?

ZT: Well, I never use them at all. I take them and show them a lot but I never hang them. I don't use them on beds. They were never made for any bed. They're very pictorial. They really are large wall hangings, mostly. I've done a few small ones as well, but they're never used, really.

JH: You do beautiful work.

ZT: Thank you.

JH: So how can we preserve them for the future?

ZT: You mean preserve the art of quilting or preserve quilts?

JH: Both, either.

ZT: I don't know. I wish I knew more about preserving the quilts themselves, really, because mine are getting rather grimy and I need to know what to do with them. I need to look into that. Preserving them for the future--I don't know. I would have to leave that to the experts.

JH: How about the art of quilting?

ZT: The art of quilting... we don't seem to be doing too badly, do we? [laughing.] People say, 'Oh, I'd like to make a quilt.' I say, 'Make very sure before you start, because once you start it becomes an obsession and you'll never be able to let it go. Make very sure before you start that you want to devote your life to this.' We don't really seem to be having much trouble in promoting quilting.

JH: So in the last twenty years that you've been a quilter, how have you seen it change?

ZT: I think people have become more adventurous in making far-out things and just expressing themselves rather than just following the same old patterns. They're being more adventurous with their own designs and their own creativity.

JH: Can you speak about quilts in terms of the economy of quilts?

ZT: The economy--

JH: Well, obviously there's a lot of people making money here on this trip--

ZT: There sure are, yes.

JH: So, can you speak to what role it plays in the overall economy.

ZT: It seems to play an enormous role in the Texan economy, in all really. But I don't really know too much about it. I'm going to confess I'm not terribly interested; I just do my own thing. But it does seem to be a very desirable thing. I think this is the reason probably a lot more men are becoming interested. They smell a bit of money around, don't they? Men seem to be more interested in that than women.

JH: I remember buying [fabric.] for two dollars a yard and now it's approaching ten dollars a yard, for many fabrics.

ZT: Oh, yes. Fabric has been very expensive in the past as well. I was reading somewhere that during the Civil War wasn't it like six or eight dollars a yard--that was an enormous amount at that time. I personally don't spend very much money; as I said I'm very tight and so I just collect other people's. Most of my stuff is all tiny bit pieces anyway. Obviously I have to go out and buy a bit of background every now and then. But I rarely buy more than a quarter of a yard at a time.

JH: So which comes first for you, the fabric or the design?

ZT: The design, really. As I said, I don't go out and buy fabric. I just look around for what I've got at home. I'm not impressed. I have to tell you, by fabrics that are printed up to look like rocks or walls or something like that. I think to me, the essence of quilting is still what it was to those early pioneer women--that you make something out of the scraps you've already got. Occasionally, when I'm running a bit low on greens--I actually use a lot of greens--I'll go out and buy a couple of fat quarters of greens at the quilt shows. I rarely go out and buy more than a fat quarter. Friends give me all their scraps. I use all the tiny bits, you see. I like to dig around in my scrap bags and find something that suggests a brick wall or rocks or whatever. I don't like pre-printed fabric. For me, that's cheating. Also, painting on your quilt is cheating for me. It has to be all embroidered. If it's handwork, it has to be handwork. So if I wish to add details, it has to be needlework.

JH: Do you want to speak about all the machine quilted and pieced?

ZT: Oh I'd better not. [laughter.] No, no, no they're fine; they're lovely. They're just not for me. It doesn't interest me. It doesn't bother me to sit down and know that it's going to take probably a year and a half to two years to make the quilt. It doesn't bother me in the least because I've got a year and a half of fun making it. So I don't want to finish it by next week. I always, when I'm putting the last few stitches in, feel a little bit--oh, it's like parting with a child. I feel a little reluctant to finish. So no, I've never been in any hurry. I enjoy the making.

JH: Do you usually only have one going at a time?

ZT: Yes. Oh yes. Occasionally I'll throw in a small one for an auction or something like that. I only ever have one big project going at one time.

JH: Can you tell us how long it's taken you to work on this one?

ZT: Probably three or four months. Yeah probably four months. It's heavily quilted--

JH: So what else would you like to tell us about quilts? Is there anything?

ZT: No I don't think so. No, except that it's been a great pleasure of my life. I'm glad that I discovered quilting, but as I said I'm also glad that I didn't discover it a long time ago, because I would have neglected the children, I know I would. [laughing.]

JH: Do you work outside the home? Or is quilting your full-time passion?

ZT: Full-time passion. I average three to four hours a day, I would say. I never watch TV. Never. I listen to the radio a lot. There's nothing on TV that beats quilting for me.

JH: Well, it's been a great pleasure talking with you today, about you and your quilts and how you feel about them. This is Jana Hawley. It's 2:58 and we are finished with our interview with candidate number eighteen, Zena Thorpe. Thank you very much.

ZT: Thank you.



“Zena Thorpe,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 18, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1216.