Judy Mathieson




Judy Mathieson




Judy Mathieson


Rebecca Salinger

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

East Bay Heritage Quilters


Houston, Texas


Rebecca Salinger


Rebecca Salinger (RS): Hello, my name is Rebecca Salinger and I'm here with Judy Mathieson at the International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas, October 23, 1999. What I'd like to ask you first is tell me about this quilt.

Judy Mathieson (JM): Well, this is a quilt that is somewhat typical of the kind of work I do in that it's a Mariner's Compasses. It's not my favorite or most important quilt, those are in the show today, but it is one I have in my teaching stuff, and it actually started as a kind of a challenge thing in that I put center block into an opportunity kind of thing, two other ladies added two borders, and then I got it back in a drawing situation. And then I continued with the borders and added more stars and then changed the center block because I didn't like it in the first place. So, it's in fact typical of what I do but it was done with other people.

RS: Sort of a Round Robin that we do now?

JM: Round Robin but it's a Medallion Challenge.

RS: A Medallion Challenge. When did you make the quilt?

JM: I did this in 1998.

RS: Oh, so this is one of your more recent ones.

JM: Yes.

RS: How long have you been quilting?

JM: I've been making quilts since about 1973. Seriously quilting since about 1977 and I've been teaching since 1978.

RS: You said this is not your first medallion quilt?

JM: Oh no, I've made many medallion quilts.

RS: Do you know how many you've made?

JM: No, I don't keep count of how many quilts I've made or what types I make. This is just a recent one. I've made a lot of quilts for one of the books I wrote, this is not in it.

RS: I'm not sure I've ever seen one of your quilts with this kind of a background in it--these grays, do usually use these grays a lot?

JM: Not typically, not typically actually the lady who put this border put the gray in there and that kept it going. Stimulation comes from all sources.

RS: I was trying to find the name of the quilt.

JM: I don't know that it's on there. It's called Moonlight Medallion. The quilt group I belong to is the Moonlight Quilters of Sonoma County.

RS: Oh, I see. How then do you use this particular quilt?

JM: How do I use it?

RS: Yes.

JM: Mostly I use it as an example for the classes I teach. I decorate my home with antique quilts. And I have a number of contemporary quilts, but mostly those go around the country and other countries as I go to teach.

RS: What's your inspiration? Why Mariner's Compass? I know you've made a lot and you don't have a number. We've seen pictures of them.

JM: I don't really know. I started by myself without training necessarily and I had a book that had the Mariner's Compass, and I was making pillow patterns and it's a nice round thing for a pillow. So, I made one and it wasn't particularly difficult and when I went into teaching about a year or a couple years later, I expected my students to do the same thing and my friends to do it as part of a friendship quilt. I found that while I was competent to do it, other people had difficulty with it. So, it became something that I could do that other people couldn't do and it wasn't difficult to teach it and so it developed into my special thing.

RS: Why do you think it was easier for you than for others?

JM: I don't think it was easier for me than for others. I just think that I had sewing skills to start with, and I wasn't having to have perfection when I made my first one. And I've been teaching my students for many years to draft and it's something that I learned to draft easily. So, I just became competent at it.

RS: So, were you drafting before you got into quilting?

JM: No, no. I didn't do any drafting. I have a Home Economics degree--I never taught with it. I was just competent at both kinds of things. And it's a really flashy design. It's really flashy and people like it. It's not as hard as they think it is when they go to do it and they get extra points for it.

RS: Do you remember your first memory of a quilt?

JM: I suppose my parents did have a quilt. They never used it. They had a '30's pastel appliqué that my father's mother made and had quilted in Pennsylvania. They never had it on their bed, but it was always around. And that was probably my first memory of quilts.

RS: If they didn't have it on their bed where was it?

JM: I don't remember actually. I just remember that they had it. They had twin beds, and it was a double bed quilt. I don't know. My mother never valued quilts and so I'm really not sure why. But that was my memory.

RS: Was it on the wall?

JM: Oh, no, no. We didn't have a guest room bed, so I honestly don't remember where it was.

RS: Do you have that quilt?

JM: Yes, I do.

RS: Is it on your wall?

JM: No, it's in my storage closet with a lot of other antique quilts. We have a small collection of antique quilts.

RS: You said your mother didn't value quilts. Was she a quilter?

JM: No, no.

RS: Was her mother a quilter?

JM: No, she told me that her neighbor made quilts and they used them in her house as blankets they got from their neighbor. But she never made quilts.

RS: So how did you get into quilts?

JM: I don't know. Well, I do know actually. I was finishing up my degree in Home Economics and I took some art classes and that included three-dimensional art and that meant involving myself with textiles, batik, tie-dye, all those kinds of things. So, we produced these fabrics and we had to do something with it and so one of the first things I made with this fabric was a quilt.

RS: And that was in?

JM: That was 1973. And since I was in college as an adult, I was researching things, because it was sort of the custom to research things and even in the art department there was research. I looked around me for books and I found there were magazines out there, for example Quilter's Newsletter Magazine. And specifically Sphere which I think translates now into Gourmet or something but at the time they did an article on a shop up in San Raphael and that's where I saw my first really beautiful antique quilts and they were just amazing. And then as the bicentennial came up, I made a couple of quilts for my children. And also, with the bicentennial there were more classes and more pictures of quilts and that's when I became seriously interested in quilts.

RS: So, you were actually at the beginning of the quilt revival?

JM: Yes, at the beginning. And then I went to a lecture and a show with Ginny Beyer in northern California, I lived near Los Angeles at the time. And I saw her wonderful quilt that won the Good Housekeeping Award that year in whenever it was. And I just totally hooked on that type of thing. And then I discovered that if you sent pictures into magazines, they'd publish your pictures. So, then I became a quilting teacher, from there it just escalated, and I made more and more quilts.

RS: I know you do a lot of teaching. Do you also judge?

JM: Yes, I'm a certified judge, yes occasionally.

RS: What do you look for when judging a quilt?

JM: Well, first of all I look for craftsmanship that doesn't distract from design. And I look for color and design that is appealing. But there is a balance between the craftsmanship quality, if it's very poor it can distract from wonderful design – wonderful design can be enhanced by good craftsmanship, but it doesn't have to have totally good craftsmanship to be a wonderful quilt.

RS: What grabs you with a good design?

JM: I think always color and the movement of your eyes throughout the quilt. The same thing that grabs you in a good picture, painting, or anything like that and then craftsmanship can always grab you too if it's over the top like some of the quilts are here at this show.

RS: So, what do you think does it take to really make it a great quilt, not just a good quilt but a great quilt – one that would end up in the 100 best or one of the shows like this?

JM: I think it either takes extraordinary workmanship – extraordinary, with a good design or it takes extraordinary graphic quality with good craftsmanship. It's best of course to have both, but I don't think it needs both to be a great quilt.

RS: So, do you weigh both craftsmanship and design equally?

JM: You know that's hard to say. It depends on every quilt. Working with a traditional pattern and you've chosen really good colors and you've chosen a really good traditional pattern and then you've put extraordinary craftsmanship into it, then you have built something that doesn't have to extraordinary original design. With extraordinary design it has to be something that's perhaps innovative and it has to have craftsmanship that doesn't embarrass it. I'm a Home Economics major so durability is always important to me. That was one of the things they drilled into me in when I took my classes. And so, I have to think of it not just as an ephemeral thing that will last a few years but that will also stand the test of time.

RS: So, getting back to something you said earlier about how you got caught up with quilting in the 70's – as you look forward what do think is going to happen to quilting? Are we on the crest of the wave or what?

JM: You know I've felt we've been on the crest of the wave for fifteen years [laughs.] And that it was going to go pfff. Everything that's contributed--the Chinese quilts came in and all this kind of stuff, but you have to realize that this is a product-oriented craft, and all the products are there now, and that's what's driving it. As long as people have the money and the leisure to employ all of these products, I think that it will continue. Whether it will gain and swell and get bigger, I have no idea. But eventually it will go down because all things do. But my feeling about the thing is that it allows women particularly to be creative in a medium that they feel relatively comfortable in, because we all wear clothes and pick out clothes. We feel the softness of the fabrics and things. And so, it allows us to be creative in a way that doesn't require necessarily learning a new skill or even if it does require the new skill, it's not an intimidating skill, like learning to pick up the paint brush and paint pictures. Quilters find out that we need to know as much about art principles even if we don't study them formally, we do have to pick that up or we don't get good designs unless we just copy other people. So, I think that what's driving it too is the production of the materials to make quilts with and then the leisure to do it and the money to buy the stuff because we're in a good economic situation right now. On the other hand, the Depression Era gave great impetus to quilts and there wasn't any money at all. So, it's hard to say that's a good reason. But I surely can't predict what's going to happen; I just hope it stays around because I really dig it. [laughs.]

RS: You already touched on the idea that it's a safe art for women. What do you think about men getting into quilting?

JM: Oh, I think it's fine. I think that's great. I don't think they should deserve more attention because they are men employing a typically women's art. But I remember Michael James saying in one of his early lectures that what he liked about quilts is that he always liked the fabric in the paintings that he did when he was a painter. That he was touched by the material aspects of the stretched canvas and so that was how he came to it. But I don't know, I suppose men have changed it because men dominate the production of the materials we use. They may not make the quilts so much, but they certainly are influential in what we do in that they influence the products that we use.

RS: I noticed, going back to this quilt that you brought today, almost all of these are commercially produced fabrics, I think.

JM: Yes, they are, that's what I use.

RS: Do you usually use any other kinds of materials when you make your quilts?

JM: I use fabric only on my quilts. I seldom embellish with buttons or beads or anything like that. But, when I was actually interested in quiltmaking in the beginning in these art classes I was taking I found that when I did the dyeing and printing, it was messy and I didn't like my hands being purple all the time, so I decided I could buy fabric. And in fact, I take my inspiration from the fabric that I buy. So, if I had to produce my own fabric like it dye it, or batik it, or paint on it, I don't think that would be the direction that I would take, because that's not my interest. I'm a clothes maker, you know, I make clothing and I like fabric as I see it on the bolt.

RS: You said you took your inspiration. What part of the fabric inspires you?

JM: I love fabric. I like to touch it. I like the way it looks and the way it feels. The way that it is tactile, and you can mold it. I just like it. That's what makes it the perfect media. In quilts, you can hang it around and drape it and you don't get tired of it so fast, and it doesn't go out of fashion so fast as clothing. Although, if you look at quilts from thirty years ago, they certainly look different from the way these do now. I just like everything about fabric.

RS: Is there anything else you'd like to say about quilting or this quilt?

JM: Well, they say this is not a representative quilt for me. I suppose that this would be the place to say that I'm here as a teacher at Houston for the Festival and that I have a quilt in The Hundred's Best and that pleases me a lot to be told that a quilt I made thirteen years ago is here in a show as wonderfully mounted and prestigious as this is. And I have to say that I'm tickled to death that my newest quilt which is only a few months old just won a $5000 prize. So, I feel that there's a great deal of reward in pursuing this particular direction.

RS: The one that was chosen, was it the one you would have chosen?

JM: Yes. No question.

RS: If you were asked which quilt?

JM: No question. That quilt has always exceeded my expectations. I mean it. I was inspired by a good graphic design from an unknown pen and ink drawing. I don't know who made it, probably a sailor with mariner's compasses on it. I changed it a lot and it was kind of ahead of its time. It's held better than I ever expected in terms of people's response to it. It's been my magic carpet to teaching all over the country and around the world--five or six countries. Even today with the prize-winning quilt I have now I'm not sure that I've exceeded it. I think I've equaled it in many cases, but there's something about timing and that quilt in the Hundred's Best is just time oriented in that it came at a time when not a lot of things like that were happening. And then it's been published so often, all of those quilts have been published, but this one has been published on and on and on and still shows up in magazines as example of this, that, and the other thing. So, it has an audience. People come up and say all the time, 'I'm so glad to see this quilt in real life,' because it was published so often so there is no question in my mind that's probably the thing in life that I'll be remembered for if any quilt I make is to be remembered.

RS: That particular quilt, do you still own that one?

JM: Oh, yes. I own almost all my quilts, because I use them for my teaching. I don't make them to sell, because I don't make enough of them. I need them I feel in my teaching, and I like them. If I don't want them around, I'm embarrassed to sell them. [laughs.] And I don't generally accept commissions. I've done a few commissions. One I had done for Canon for their printable fabric, and it was theirs, but I don't enjoy that as much as making them for me.

RS: I'm trying to remember if I've seen any other quilts of yours that had other patterns besides Mariner's compass.

JM: You have, but you might not have put me with them, because early on I did a number of Spinning Blocks and Block Puzzles, when people were doing that three-dimensional look. And that's something where people say, 'Oh, I forgot that you did that.' I do a lot of Attic Window quilts, where you look through things and for a while, I was producing a lot of digitized pictorial things with particularly animals and flowers, and I taught that a lot. So, people did all these dogs and cats with little squares and that was before the watercolors actually started. And people confuse that with the watercolors which is a blended use of squares, but I was trying to define it in the way that needlepoint does, in a way with the little squares representing the areas of shading to do a literal representative object. And now I'm making a lot of quilts about dogs because my husband's hobby is dog training.

RS: Are they appliquéd or pieced or?

JM: Some of them are appliquéd. Some are pieced. Some are silly things. Some are more serious. One I'm working on right now is really a copy of Florence Peto's famous Calico Garden which had nine patches and little primitive appliqués in them. She used antique fabrics in them in the thirties when she was using 1880's fabrics in the '30's and I'm using my collections of fabrics with dogs printed on them to make the flowers and things. So, we always go back to the source with these things. I'm not going to teach it. I'm not planning to sell. It's just for me to enjoy.

RS: Is that the only direction you are going now? Are you going to keep up with these?

JM: I don't know. I've had the one that's in the show today, that's the prize winner, in my mind to make for three years. And it was waiting to come out. And now I may make some smaller versions of it to continue the process, because I discovered some new techniques while I was doing this. But I don't have a big major plan for a quilt in my head at the moment. I just want to sew some more. I moved recently so I have gardens to produce and things like that around the house. And I am thinking seriously about doing less teaching and so that would make me able to stay home and make more quilts, so I don't plan to stop making quilts even though I don't plan to teach as much.

RS: Sounds like you already have your studio set up?

JM: Oh, yes, I've always had a studio, even if it was the side of the office or someplace. But I do have a nice studio I can use, and it looks out over some pretty redwood trees and stuff like that.

RS: That's great. I'm so glad you talked with us today. Do you have any other questions Ava that you'd like to ask?

Ava (A) [last name not provided probably the scribe.]: The question I'd love to ask is do you regard what you do more of an art or a craft?

JM: I firmly thought of it as a craft when I first began, even though I started in the Art Department you might say, when I began to make these quilts, as opposed to the quilts from the home economics end. I was encouraged to make a quilt from the Art side. I would be hard put to say it's more an art or a craft because I really do like the technical aspect of it as a craft. I have to work harder at the art of it because I don't have a lot of art training. I don't know what the answer is. I don't know if it's 60/40 or 50/50, it depends on what day it is or what mood I'm in.

A: What do you think your quilting has taught you about life?

JM: That everybody is the same. They like to have something intriguing to do and women like fun things to do. And everywhere I go quilters are alike even in foreign countries when I can't understand the language, they're still enjoying the creative aspects of this particular craft and art. That everybody in the world is basically alike.

RS: Do you have a particular hint that you would like to leave on tape?

JM: Nooo. [laughs.] No, I don't think so. The method that you use or the way that you come to a quilt is so personal so no, I don't.

RS: Today a wonderful woman told me to use masking tape on the under finger.

Thank you for participating.

JM: Thank you so much.

RS: This concludes the interview with Judy Mathieson. This is Rebecca Salinger. It's October 23rd. Thank you very much.

JM: Thank you.

[tape ends.]



“Judy Mathieson,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1249.