Judith Baker Montano




Judith Baker Montano




Judith Baker Montano


Bernie Herman

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

The Nat'l Quilting Assn


Houston, Texas


Amy Henderson


Bernard Herman (BH): This is the Twenty-third of October, 3:00 p.m., Houston, Texas Quilt Festival. This is Bernie Herman and Judith Baker Montano, and we are initiating a discussion or conversation for the Quilters' S.O.S. Judith, could you tell us a bit about the quilt you have brought today?

Judith Baker Montano (JBM): Okay, Bernie. I brought my crazy quilt that I did in 1983, and it was initiated by several friends from the Kingwood Quilt Guild, who, as a going away gift, gave me several pieces of fabric pinned to a piece of muslin and told me to make a crazy quilt.

BH: So, this is a kind of a memory quilt?

JBM: It is, absolutely. I didn't know a thing about it. I was the president of the guild at the time, and as a going away gift--as a surprise for me--they had secretly been making all these squares, little bits and pieces, and every one of these people were a very special friend to me, and I was leaving from Houston, Texas to go live in Denver, Colorado where I didn't know a soul. So it was a wonderful memory, but also it helped me from getting too homesick because as I was sewing this quilt together, I was able to remember all these people. Every little piece has a name, and whether they were good quilters or not they made an attempt to give me something.

BH: Oh, this is quite wonderful. So how do you display this or do you keep this at home?

JBM: I keep this at home. It usually hangs in my bedroom, but it's been fading quite a bit. Some of the newer fabrics unfortunately are fading more than the old ones, which you can see up here. I teach and write books on crazy quilting, and I use it as a, a work piece for my students to examine. It is the first crazy quilt I ever made so it's not my best effort but it certainly was made with lots of love.

BH: So this is--let me understand this, it is that they gave you the pieces and--but they were not all pinned together?

JBM: Oh no, they were just pinned to a piece of muslin so I had a piece of a little square with Jeanette's name on it here, or I had a little piece over here with just this lady's name. I had a piece of fabric with this initial, you see, and they were told to bring or do something about seven inches by seven inches. For example, let's see, where is Alma? Here she is over here. This lady had never finished a project in her life, and she was sort of proud of it, you know, so Alma comes up with 'A,' 'L,' 'M' embroidered on a piece of velvet with the needle still in the fabric and said, 'I just want you to have it even if you won't use it in your quilt.' So here it is. I put the whole thing in with the needle and all because that's just who she was.

BH: So how did you design this, I mean how did you get all these pieces?

JBM: Well crazy quilting is a very different method of quilting than traditional piece quilting. You start in either one corner or with a five sided center piece, that's a method I came up with. I actually started over in here. You just lay your pieces down and appliqué them down into a sort of free form style. I wanted to have a color theme, and I wanted to work with dusty pinks and teal blues and greens.

BH: And that's what's in the border?

JBM: Right, and in throughout the quilt. But I was very limited as to how painterly I could be with this quilt because of the pieces that had been given to me, so I had to work in lots of different bits and pieces and colors. So, as you can see, some of the lighter pieces pop forward more than I would like them to. Look at this piece over here. This is an antique piece of fabric. They just gave it to me like this. They decorated it. That's why the silk is falling apart. This is very old, so, but it's been appliquéd into the quilt also. Here's another old piece that someone gave me, and this piece here is a painting by a friend of mine. I have a lot of pets. Bruce is a cat. I don't know where he is. Oh, here he is. I had three dogs, an Irish setter, and a Scottie, and a Dachshund. This is a friend who was a French chef, named Chantal, and she gave me a little tea napkin from her restaurant. Lots of memories in this piece.

BH: Now you say this is the first memory quilt you made?

JBM: It's the first crazy quilt I ever made, absolutely.

BH: Oh, the first crazy quilt. And you continue to work in this area?

JBM: In this medium until I became pretty good at it, and to the point that I am now certainly the expert in crazy quilting, and I have written seven books so far.

BH: So how has your crazy quilting evolved out of this? So what do you see as the challenges?

JBM: Oh, I am much more painterly. I work much more carefully with fabric, with color choices, [and.] my stitching has become much better. Of course anything with practice becomes better. And I also use a much heavier collage method in my work now. And I teach. I've come up with my own method of crazy quilting which I do on the sewing machine. This piece happened to have all been done all by hand. I didn't know really how to do crazy--there weren't any books on it, at all, at that time. And so, I had to sort of evolve with my own method, but eventually I came up with a design, a method that I could do with the sewing machine, and that's what I am known for, that's what I teach. For example, I've taught at this show for 25 years. I'm one of the old girls.

BH: So since the very first one?

JBM: Yeah, since the first quilt show that we had in the basement of a church here in Houston. So I go back. And these friends, I mean, in my quilt, this lady here, for example, Carol Moderi, I have dinner with her once a year, and I just saw her last night. All these old friends, some of us have kept in touch better than others, and in fact, this friend, Carol, she just lost her husband who was a really dear friend to all of us. And somewhere down in here I have one of his ties. 'Sweetie,' he always called us, and this is a piece of his tie. He just died a month ago. So we had dinner together last night and some really good crying over it, because but he was a lovely man and so nice to everybody. And so here he is in my quilt. Crazy quilts are so sentimental, and I always say they are depositories of sentimentality. It is very hard to date a crazy quilt in that a lot of the fabrics jump generations. Here, for example, probably late 1800's fabric and then 1883 Jenny Beyer's fabric. You know. You know, it's really hard to date a crazy quilt. And--and you know, I look at this quilt filled with memories. Like this lady, Lynn Forester, who was an incredible, incredible embroideress but she had been up to Canada, where I am from in fact up at Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada. She's from New Jersey, and whatever possessed her, but she went on a trail ride. And she was afraid of her horse, and the horse put its head down to have a drink of water and she fell off. I mean, how she could fall off? But I'm an old ranch girl and I don't understand that, but the poor thing fell off and broke her hand. I mean just shattered her fingers and everything and this wonderful embroideress had to have her hand in a cast for months. And she managed, though, with handicaps and everything to get her initials embroidered. I've got story after story with this quilt. Georgia Williams, a dear friend, who I just saw in the quilt show just walking down the rows--one of the aisles buying something. Let's see. What else I can tell you about this? I love chickens, and so somebody gave me this chicken with a necklace around its neck. I also travel internationally, and I do a lot teaching in Japan. I was teaching in Japan then-- some Japanese fabrics and punch needle embroidery. This is something I did and as you can see I was not the best of stitchers then. [showing something is coming loose on the quilt.] This quilt also gets a lot more wear and tear than a normal quilt because it's on the road with me when I am teaching, so it gets very badly abused.

BH: So you continue to teach with this particular quilt?

JBM: I do.

BH: And why?

JBM: Well, sometimes teachers can become ego-maniacs because of, you know, you write a book, and wow, and people think you're wonderful. But I think you should always keep your first works as lessons in humility, because you had to start somewhere. I had to learn somewhere, and so, the students can be quite intimidated by a teacher, especially one that is supposedly well known. And if you whip out a few old things and show them that you didn't know anything more than they know now, at the time, it really makes them more comfortable. Yeah, so I always bring out old bits and pieces to show them how my work evolves, and how I've changed, and the little lessons I've learned. So I always use myself as an example. It--it just works for me, that kind of teaching.

BH: Now, you said you were quilting before you moved into the world of crazy quilts.

JBM: Well, yes, I was a reluctant quilter. I am an artist by training--nature and training. I have a degree in fine arts and I was quilting in the '80's when we didn't have the fabrics like we do now. And we were really limited as to the beauty of the fabric. I mean most of them were little pin dots and very basic primary colors on white and they weren't pretty, to me, and so I really felt that if could have used polyesters and silks and velvets, I could get the colors I wanted. I was doing a traditional quilting class. My points had to meet. I had to use quarter-inch seems and you had to use 100% cotton. And I didn't like that. I mean I got really tired of the rules. Maybe it's because I have a short attention span but I didn't like the fact that you had to repeat the blocks. You see in those days we were doing real traditional blocks and we didn't have this freedom that we have now, to be painterly, to do the contemporary work. So, that's why I love the crazy quilts, because you can think like a painter and create a thing of beauty. There isn't a pattern for crazy quilts. All you have is a piece of muslin and that is your canvas. And your fabrics are your paints and the different layers of color that you're laying down are, instead of paint, they are lace, ribbons, and embroidery technique, stuff like that. So it is a very freeing experience. I tried to find books on crazy quilts, and as I said earlier, I could not find anyone to teach me. No one knew how to do it so it was just a matter of trial and error. I really didn't know what I was doing. About, oh, ten years ago, I found out that I am also dyslexic. I was having my daughter tested for dyslexia and I came to find out it was from me. So I see things a little differently than most and so it was even harder to do the stitches. And I look at my stitches now and I think, oh my God, that was so bad and my reaction is maybe I shouldn't show this quilt but then I didn't know how to do it then you see and now I am much better at it. I've listed everyone's name on the back that gave me a square and it was made in 1983 and it has won several awards. And, in the '80's, you hardly ever saw a crazy quilt but every award it ever won it was always a judge's choice. It won judge's choice at the Colorado State Fair. It won judge's choice at the Cal exhibition at Stande. So every time I won a ribbon, I sent it back to the Kingwood Quilt Guild because I figured it was a real joint effort.

BH: So do they display the ribbons there?

JBM: Oh, I am sure they've got them somewhere in a scrapbook or something. But you know I was a quilter before this and I was a charter member of the Kingwood Quilt Guild [Houston, Texas.] which was started as a quilting class. There were seven of us and we stayed together. We didn't like our teacher very much and she'll remain nameless and I even say this in my book. She was a very poor teacher in that she wasn't willing to learn along with us. Her way was the right way or no way at all which makes for a very poor attitude as a teacher. But we didn't know any better then either so we stayed with this teacher and we made 14 inch square--squares of traditional blocks and then we made pillows out of them. After we made about 20 pillows we were a little tired of this so we had a bazaar and we sold them and we did pretty good at it. Then we decided that we liked each other enough that we would like to see each other at least once a month and so we started the Kingwood Quilt Guild. Over the years that evolved into 500 women. I was a charter member, and ended up spending one year as a president which was not a good experience because we were just at that point where we got so big that we had to have a charter and we had to go by parliamentarian rules and all that good stuff.

BH: "Robert's Rules of Order."

JBM: Thank you but meanwhile I got into appliqué. I loved to do appliqué work. And I did several appliqué quilts but they were very much like pictorial quilts and those quilts-- the only one I can really tell you about was one called "The Pekisko Memories" that I made in memory of my godfather who raised me. That was a quilt that won the Texas State Fair in 1982 and it won best of show at the Texas State Fair. It won second prize here. It won best of show in Canada. I was a quilter at one time and--but I never was a traditional block quilter. I did appliqué and then the minute I thought I could do something like this. I've never gone back. Now I work in both the embroidery world, and the needlework world, and the quilting industry.

BH: How did you come to quilting?

JBM: Well, I was living in Okinawa, Japan, and I had a baby. My first born was a son and I wanted to make him a quilt. I knew absolutely nothing even though my great-grandmother was a master quilter and my grandmother was a master quilter. It skipped my mother's generation and I didn't know how to do it. So I got a book on basic quilting and of course typical person or student, I didn't read the fine print. I just looked at the pictures and assumed I knew how to do it. So I made this animal quilt and I didn't know you're supposed to turn under the edges for appliqué and so I just appliquéd them down and through the tops of the animals, through the top layer fabric, and the batting and the backing. I did it all at once. I used quilting stitches. You know I had this bloody mess but I thought it was wonderful at the time. I learned by trial and error. So when I came back to America which was two years later, I thought I better take a lesson so I could learn the right way. My son wore that little quilt out. Obviously it went real fast 'cause nothing was turned under so it shredded up real fast but that's how I came to quilting. I lived in England for two years and I went to the Royal Victoria and Albert Museum and that's were I saw my first really magnificent crazy quilt. And the minute I saw those crazy quilts, I knew that some day I could do those. I was a painter and I worked with a lot of tissue collage, things like that, and this is really not much different than collage with paper where you glue bits of paper down and overlap. A--another thing I do a lot of is clothing design. I have a garment over here in that 100 years of the Fairfield show. I was married to a man in American Express banking and we had to do a lot of those cocktail parties, you know the pearls and silk outfits, and I really hated that part of my life. So I started jazzing up a shirt dress with a little bit of appliqué work, you know with other materials, and a few beads and buttons and that's really, really how I ventured into doing some of this work so I worked on. I made accessories and one-of-a-kind art garments before I ever did my crazy quilts so that was sort of the basis of it.

BH: I was going to ask you, what makes a great quilt great?

JBM: I worked for several years as the Assistant to the Curator of Textiles at the Denver Art Museum and I see one of our quilts is in the "Great 100 Quilts" ["The Twentieth Century's Best American Quilts exhibit."]. It's not necessarily the best quilt. It's the quilt to me that is [it.] typifies what was popular at that time. Okay, so it might not be an appliqué quilt with the finest of stitches and the most wonderful workmanship. It might be a string quilt that--when you had that craze in that era--that little like five year span or something. I don't know what to say. I don't know how to answer that 'what makes a great quilt great?' Of course use of color, workmanship. Of course, but a flair, an artistic flair. I look at the "Great 100 Quilts" there and I agree with almost all of them except a few and there's one that just caught my heart and that's the "Fairy Quilt." [Ruby M. Lanning Lundrgren.] Now that was done in 1934, but there's just something about that lovely, chubby Rubenesque body, and the artist's use of color and line, that just made me gasp. I just loved that and I wasn't even around in 1934. I love that quilt. So, what makes a great quilt is going to be different for all kinds of people, you know, so I don't know how to answer that really. But from a curator's standpoint it would be a good, a great quilt would be--in our, in a collection--would be what represents that era, you know, the best that you can find of that type. I know what makes a great crazy quilt.

BH: Well, why don't we go there?

JBM: All right. Well what makes a great crazy quilt, of course, is use of color use of design, and also, use of workmanship with embroidery. A crazy quilt really isn't a quilt. It doesn't have batting. It's appliquéd pieces to a whole cloth back and then it's backed like a pillow case, see I could lift this up off the back, as a pillow case backing. And it's tied here and there just to hold it together. What makes a great crazy quilt is the beauty of the embellishment, the stitches. Victorian women had very few ways to show off their skills. They went from belonging to their fathers to belonging to their husbands; they didn't have the vote. There was no birth control. Anybody that says they were ladies of leisure, that's a joke because they worked so hard. A lot of them weren't allowed an education so one of the ways they could sort of draw attention to themselves was their ability to do needlework. The idea of a crazy quilt is that they were used to show off her ability to combine various stitches in different designs. So you would take five basic stitches, such as the feather stitch, herring bone, chevron, cretin, lazy daisies. From those five stitches they could come up with hundreds of combinations. My quilt is a very early effort, so you don't see the, the variety of stitches that could be used, but some of their stitching would be so elaborate they would swoop like this. Every seam line in a crazy quilt has to be covered in embroidery that was the challenge of them. So, what makes a really great crazy quilt is the use of color, the variety of design, the embroidery work. They combined painting on velvet all kinds of different needlework techniques, you know, things like that. That's what makes a beautiful crazy quilt, and of course, the workmanship but I think behind every great quilt is a sense of style, you know, that's just totally unique to itself. Like there's a crazy quilt hanging in the "Great 100" right now that is an absolutely wonderful quilt made by a spinster lady and when you really look at it, it's very, very simple. The fabrics in the back, she's obviously a farmer, from the country. The fabrics in the back are very, very humble and then she showcased her embroidery of farm chickens, rabbits, geese, all kinds of stuff like that that she really knew well. It's an incredible quilt but more for its creativity and style than anything else so that to me is what makes a great crazy quilt.

BH: That's super. I want to go in a little different direction here and as you've moved through and you've written books I'd like to raise the question, how has quilting affected your personal or family life?

JBM: Oh my god, I started doing crazy quilting in1983. This industry has grown beyond belief, so much now that it's opened a door for me that would have never been possible. I have a degree in journalism and a degree in art, and so what did I do, I became a quilt teacher, and being a quilt teacher has opened doors--I've traveled all over the world--I'm on the road 200 days of the year. It's opened doors for me where I have, dear, dear friends in Australia, Japan, Europe. It's allowed me as a single mother for 11 years to raise two children and put them through university. It's given me the opportunity to be an artist, to be known as an artist. When I was a young woman, to be an artist, you know, your parents didn't want you to do that. They wanted you to either be a nurse, a secretary, a teacher, something honorable, and to be an artist, they thought all artists would be starving to death in a garret. So I wasn't allowed to take art in university, I had to do that quietly on the side. So, to be able to now, at the age of 54, say yes, I am an artist, and that I am recognized for it is such a big step for me, I mean it has allowed me so much freedom--it's through quilting that I've been allowed to do this. Yeah, but it's really wonderful.

BH: What's it like to have a following?

JBM: A little bit scary at times, it's a little weird because they read your books and I write a book that sounds like I am sitting at the coffee--at the table having a cup of coffee with you. I want my reader to be so comfortable so I am not afraid to talk about things I've done wrong or how I've learned by my mistake. So I write from a very personal basis and my readers when they read the books they think they know me. Sometimes they jump over that little privacy barrier that you put up for yourself and it's a little disconcerting, scary at times but, on the other hand, there's part of me that loves it and the other part that's horrified by it. When you're only home like a hundred some days a year, your privacy's pretty special. I won't get on the Internet, because I already answer about forty letters a month. So if I got on e-mail I'm afraid that I would really be in a mess so I'm a computer dinosaur. One of the ones that refuses to do it. But, oh, it's been wonderful. It's afforded me a wonderful lifestyle and so many opportunities. I fly one airline and because of that I--I have--I am like way up there in miles and so sometimes I'll upgrade into first class and I'll be sitting there minding my own business and I might be doing a piece, working on something, and the man will reach over or whoever and they'll say to me 'What are you doing?' And I'll tell them and they'll say, 'Oh, my grandmother was a quilter,' or such and such and they'll say, 'Where have you been?' You know and you'll say, 'Oh, well I've been on tour and I've been teaching quilting,' or whatever and then the next question is, 'And what does your husband do?' They can't believe that a woman could make a living doing this kind of work, it just floors them. And I'll say, 'Well, I don't have a husband, I support myself,' and they can't believe it. But if I say to them I'm a fiber artist, they don't quite know what that is. It sounds quite vague, and a little bit up there, so then they believe it. But if I tell them I am a quilter, that just brings back memories of grandma with the bun on her hair, sitting at the quilt, you know what I mean? So, yeah, it's interesting.

BH: That raises a real interesting question with your background as an artist, as a journalist, as an assistant curator you come here, and there's the 100 Greatest Quilts, and they are really put in as if it were a museum installation, and you wonder about, what is the challenge to getting people to look at quilts in outside of this community. Outside, here we are where it's a given, and then you move into another world where it's the world of the museum, the world of the gallery.

JBM: Right. Well, I have been able to observe it over the last 25 years and the way we've just jumped and leaped through bounds. As far as I'm concerned it's been amazing, because for the first time in history quilting is looked at as an art form. It was always a traditional, a very homey hobby. Unfortunately in the museums, you know, only about five per cent of their collection can ever be shown at a time--and I'm really hoping that one day we're going to be able to see quilts hung right along in an art gallery next to an oil painting next to a weaving--weaving and sold as an art piece. You just have to walk through this show now, personally, I see a few things out in the aisles that are, to me, even more wonderful than the 100 Best quilts. I mean nobody is ever going to agree with what are the 100 Best quilts, I happen to be incredibly fond of appliqué, of pictorial things. I just think it's wonderful what they can do now and how painterly everything has become. I'm absolutely thrilled to see some of the contemporary things that are coming out. It's exciting to see the way we are mixing mediums now. That's really exciting to me. That women who have been learning all these different techniques can take them now and mix them, and create works of art.

BH: So, you have kids, you have--

JBM: I have--I have a very unusual family. I actually have five children, and I married for the second time at the age of 50. I was raised on a cattle ranch in Canada. My family is part Indian and French and English. My first husband was Mexican American. At the age of 50, fell madly in love with an Afro-American, and we've been married for 6 years now and I have three beautiful step-daughters who--we don't use the word step in our family, they are my daughters. Their mother died of breast cancer and I've inherited four beautiful grand-kids. And I have a Hungarian son-in-law, a Japanese son-in-law and a Norwegian son-in-law. Our son is getting married next week to a girl who is Mexican, from Mexico City, so we are like an international family under one roof--and I love it. I love it. I can't tell you how happy that makes me.

BH: Do any of these many, many people quilt?

JBM: One. My third daughter, Dana and she happens to be an engineer with Aerospace. She quilts. She's coming at it from a very mathematical background, you know, because she's an engineer. I didn't teach her either. She bought a quilt book. I helped her pick out her fabrics. I did help her with that and I was there if she needed me but that was about it. And then our baby who is my biological child. Actually, she's the last one out of university and she's studying computer graphics. And she has just inherited my 25 year old Elna and is teaching herself how to sew. She's very independent and that's about as good as it gets. It is a happy story. I'm a very happy lady. I'm happily married. I have a beautiful family and I get to travel and talk to people like you. Couldn't be better.

BH: And we thank you and I think that's a good place to stop.

JBM: Thank you. I appreciate it.

BH: So the time is 3:37 p.m. This is Judith Montano, Bernie Herman, Patricia Crews in Houston. Thank you very much.

JBM: Thank you very much, I appreciate it.

BH: This is a happy story.



“Judith Baker Montano,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 21, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1244.