Judy Holley




Judy Holley




Judy Holley


Barbara Beck

Interview Date


Interview sponsor



Houston, Texas


Heather Gibson


Barbara Beck (BB): Today is November 4, 2000. It is 11:35 and I am conducting an interview with Judy Holley for Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project in Houston, Texas at the International Quilt Festival. I'm so glad you're here.

Judy Holley (JH): I'm so glad you invited me.

BB: Tell me about your quilt.

JH: This is a class model that I worked on this summer. The pattern is Courthouse Steps. It is made from recycled men's ties and the border is men's suiting samples from a men's clothing store in Baton Rouge that a guild member gets. About every other year she gets boxes of them. The fabrics are wonderful. Some are them are 100 percent cashmere and 100 percent wool or a wool and silk blend. Some of them are silk and linen blends. Most of them are all natural fibers. The ties, of course, aren't. They can be anything under the sun. People give me ties. Sometimes I buy them. It's not a collection of any individual's ties. The first time I worked with Courthouse Steps was last year for the IQA [International Quilt Association.] mini auction. I made a mini-quilt in courthouse steps just in bands of color so they looked like Japanese lanterns. I really enjoyed working with the pattern. I'm a design-as-you-go person. I don't like to follow a blueprint. I like to make it up as I go along. The way I worked with the block I thought would be a good, easy way to teach other quilters how you would do that. Most quilters look at you and say, 'Duh, you didn't follow a pattern? Where are the directions? How many squares do I cut? How many strips do I need? How many blocks do you take? I don't do math. Numbers don't live in my world. I don't use them.' To me, quilters always worry about all the wrong things. They are always worried about the nit-picky details instead of just making a quilt. The fabric will tell you what to do. Who cares about the details? I don't know the details. I never know how big the quilt is going to be or what it is going to look like. I pick a block and let's see what happens. All the details are what you find along the way. It's like a journey you take. That's the way I started working with the courthouse steps block. This is a class model, so I've been working in courthouse steps as a series all year. You may not recognize it as courthouse steps, but it is. This is unlike my work in that it was pre-planned and pre-designed on a computer.

BB: A change.

JH: Yeah. By the time I'd made the third courthouse steps quilt I began to see these diagonal interweaves, so I made one of those. This was probably the fourth or the fifth one. Then I began to see the clusters of the flowers. The name of this quilt is "Silk Flowers by Howard." I just like this label. I don't know if this is a store. I don't know if it's a manufacturer. It said, 'Howard, All Silk.' It looked good. It goes on the front. I do make a lot of tie quilts. The label is a bandaide. It covers the boo-boo. I'm proud to say this one doesn't have a boo-boo! It just looked like where it needed to be. This is also the first time working with non-cotton fabrics that I did free-motion quilting. These are silks, acetates, polyesters, whatever combination there-of. No wool. Cotton batting will make the two layers stick together like peanut butter. It quilted just like cotton, no problem whatsoever. I made a mini version of this with three-inch blocks. These are for the IQA [International Quilt Association.] show here this year.

BB: Very interesting. For the--

JH: For the IQA mini auction here.

BB: How's it going? Have you gone by and looked?

JH: It sold yesterday for two-fifty.

BB: Oh, wow. That's pretty great. Lovely. How did you choose this quilt for the interview?

JH: I had just finished working on it and it was small and it would fit in my tote bag. It wouldn't take up a lot of room and I could carry it around the floor all day. I like it.

BB: What plans do you have for it?

JH: It's a working class model. I'm a circuit teacher for GSQA, that's Gulf States Quilting Association for the Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida panhandle. We have six circuit teachers and I'm one of those. This was my new class I just added in July. I've already taught it three times.

BB: That sounds like an interesting job.

JH: It is. The guilds can get two circuit teachers a year.

BB: Who pays the circuit teachers?

JH: GSQA. [Gulf States Quilt Association.]

BB: Tell me about that.

JH: We don't have a state association of Louisiana. I think the women who founded it maybe didn't think there were enough people in Louisiana. I don't know why it became four states. So we don't have a state association in Louisiana. We have Gulf States. We have basically about a thousand members. The majority of the members are from Louisiana at the moment, let's say about 80 percent of the officers and board members are from Louisiana and one just moved to Mississippi right across the state line. We have a seminar every year and the last five or six years it has been in Baton Rouge where I live, so that's convenient. We have teachers from all over the world just like you do here. We have the same quality of teachers. We have an excellent seminar in Baton Rouge. Every other year we have a quilt show in New Orleans.

BB: How old were you when you started quilting?

JH: I made my first quilt when I had just turned twenty-one. I was sitting at home with a new baby. It was 1970. The baby didn't need a quilt. The baby had all these blankets. I needed a quilt and we had a king-size bed. Why start small?

BB: Right. How was the quilt?

JH: That was an adventure. I started sewing when I was sixteen and at the time I lived in New England in Connecticut right in the middle of the textile industry in a rural area. We had recently moved back to New England. Girls had like a uniform. I learned to sew in Connecticut when we lived there. Everybody wore wool skirts, sweaters, knee socks and penny loafers. I learned to sew making all those wool skirts. Just a few years later I was back down south again. Of course I don't throw anything away, so I had all these scraps. I had all these wool scraps in my stash plus cotton and corduroy and voile and dotted Swiss, No knit pique, anything, and I was making a Dresden Plate. I think it was a five-by-five set, like fifteen, eighteen-inch blocks. I don't really remember. I was making scrappy Dresden Plates and I got all the plates. I even cut up an old sheet to put them on the background. I did order a book. There was only one book in print at the time. It was Margaret Ickas's book on quilting. We had to order it and it took six weeks to come in. It was the only book in print in 1970. I worked on all these blocks and I had them all set together and then I didn't know what to do with them. I folded them up and put them in the basket in the floor in my sewing room. It looked great, and of course the cats thought it was wonderful so they slept on it for a while. Maybe six or nine months later I felt I was ready to tackle basting it and seeing what is this thing called quilting and how does all this stay together. I took it out and thought the cats had been sleeping on it for a while so I should wash it. I threw it in the washing machine. It came out and all those wool petals shrunk. It came out like this twisted, gnarled thing. I'm proud to say that I made the ugliest quilt in the world. [laughs.] I was too embarrassed to show that to my husband so I threw it away. Then I made a quilt for the bicentennial. I started it and finished it three years later.

BB: Was that your second quilt?

JH: It was my second quilt. I made it for my daughter. She was three when I started it and eight when I finished it.

BB: Tell me about that.

JH: I was inspired by a Jean Ray Laury quilt. It's her quilt called "Tom's Quilt." I looked at that. It was an asymmetrical, irregular machine appliqué. I looked at her quilt and based it on that kind of set.

BB: Is it still alive and well?

JH: Yes it is. As a matter of fact, it's in my studio. It's been there for two years. I'm supposed to be mending it. I have mended some of it. She wants it back.

BB: You said you were sewing before you started quilting?

JH: Yes, I started sewing when I was sixteen and I made everything we wore for years.

BB: Tell me what else you do for quilt-related activities.

JH: I've been president for a little guild in a little town, Gonzales, outside of Baton Rouge. I think it's an indefinite position. I have been president there for a very long time. Lately, I have been very involved in community and group quilts. Two years ago I was working all at the same time. I had like six community-related group quilts going. They were either donations or fund-raisers. Now they are all finished. I coordinated the Baton Rouge Quilt, which was for Baton Rouge's tercentennial in 1999. That quilt was here last year. Then I was working on a fund-raiser or raffle quilt, the World War II Memorial Quilt. That was a fund-raiser for CASA. That quilt led to the Veteran's Quilt. The World War II quilt was going to be raffled at an event where a lot of World War II veterans were going to be.

BB: Tell that story.

JH: When we were asked to do this quilt, one of the ideas we talked about was, 'Gee, wouldn't it be neat if all these World War II veterans are going to be at this event, if we could get some signatures of these World War II veterans? What a neat idea because they're not going to be around much longer.' The more we thought about it, the more we liked it. But CASA wanted a finished quilt to raffle. I decided we'd do something quick and simple to raffle and I made a rather large quilt. It was very horizontal. I don't do numbers so I don't remember what they were. I started with three-inch red squares and we did like a watercolor battlefield of reds that graduated up into whites. Then I scanned photos from World War II into the computer. They were hand appliquéd to the surface, scattered all over the quilt. Then I machine quilted it. I didn't think I was going to have to quilt the photographs, but after everything was outlined, they just went 'poof.' I had to quilt them, so I densely scribbled the backgrounds and it made the photo images pop. It looks very three-dimensional when you see it in person, but it didn't photograph well because all that was done with invisible thread. When you see it in person it kind of rips your heart out, but it doesn't photograph well so I've never entered it in anything. That was the quick and simple quilt. We finished that a couple of months in advance, so it hung in a local library as part of a special World War II exhibit. We got busy making blocks. We decided on a patriotic sampler for the Veteran's Quilt. Looking at patriotic quilts those were the ones that I like, the samplers. We just picked arbitrarily twelve, a good quilt number. We could make any block that worked with the number twelve that had white space in it for signing. There were five of us in this group. It's the Peaceful Quilters. We meet four times a year. It's four women and one man. Our man has a quilt in the Hoffman Challenge here. He has had a quilt in the Hoffman Challenge every year but one. We're real proud of Michael. We just made blocks. Independently, we just made blocks. The lady who asked us to do it is a local television news anchor. When we were about ready to take the blocks she took a whole stack of blocks to a VFW meeting. The first night she took them to the meeting and this is for World War II veterans, and she came back with signature from World War I to Vietnam and almost two hundred dollars for CASA. The Veterans wanted a quilt, so then we just opened it up to Veterans, not really planning ahead. This was kind of putting one foot in front of the other. We made this up as we went along. When it was all over and done we had over a thousand signatures that represented virtually every military conflict of the twentieth century. The people could write whatever they wanted to write. We came up with a color code for signatures for one because I knew we had to preserve the accuracy of the living veterans who were signing their own names. I didn't think that enough people would want to sign it. I didn't think that World War II veterans would want to pay two bucks to sign a quilt. These are children of the Depression. I thought we ought to be paying them two bucks to sign the quilt! So we came up with a color code. Red was for killed in action. Black was for a veteran who died since serving. Green was a living vet signing his own name. Blue was a living vet with someone else signing for him because he wasn't there. People would show up with lists of pages. They had called and got all their information. One person would come to the signing and have all their family's names and give you forty bucks so they could sign all these people's names on the quilt. The public had more ideas about this than I did. People wanted to have their family signed in the same block. That hadn't even occurred to me. I put my father's name in one block and my stepfather's name in another block. It never occurred to me. Everybody else wanted all their family in one block except for one lady whose parent's had divorced so she made sure they were on opposite sides of the quilt! One of our public signings, and this was difficult, was on veteran's day. It was a public signing. A young man, I guess he wasn't that young, said, 'What are the other guy's saying? I was in Vietnam.' He didn't want to write Vietnam. He said, 'What are the other guys writing?' I said, 'Vietnam, or VN.' He would not write Vietnam on his quilt block. He put his name and the dates that he served. We don't have anyone from Bosnia on it but I know our first public signing when we were first signing blocks, a girl did sign for her brother who was in Kosovo because she was telling us about it. She didn't write that down and I'm real sorry that she didn't. I'm real sorry that weren't organized enough to have a scribe with a tablet writing down the names of the people who were put on the quilt. People would show up with two lists and they would know when they came up things like, 'I need two blues, three blacks.' They had studied their homework and they knew what they needed. They had their list and their names spelled right. They knew what branch of the service. The service people who signed the quilt, they have all these numbers and the names of their battalion and where they were. You'll see things on the Battan Death March. Some of them would say, 'He was killed in a submarine. It was bombed.'

BB: How did you advertise this to get them to come?

JH: We just started doing blocks. As quilters, and there were five of us making blocks, we passed blocks out ourselves between family and friends. Donna Britt, who was with CASA, would go to the VFW meetings and take blocks. She would pass blocks out to CASA members. Then we met in October to put the quilt together. Of course, we didn't have a design or layout. I don't like to work with a blueprint. I just like to wing it and throw it all together. By the end of the day when we were supposed to be sewing all the blocks together, we realized that we needed more blocks to balance the size of the scale of the eagle that's in the middle of the quilt. So it was another two weeks before the quilt was finished. There was all this blank space that doesn't have signature. Veteran's Day was right around the corner. We had an excellent write-up in the local paper for Veteran's Day and a wonderful article. People came from that. We had two public signings back to back. A week later we didn't publicize that because we didn't have that much room left. We would have had to let people sign in the center medallion in the eagle, and we didn't want them to. We wanted to quilt in that. I'm sorry the quilting didn't photograph well.

BB: I'm looking at a photograph of the quilt that Judy's been describing. It is beautiful.

JH: It was a fundraiser. The signatures were two dollars and the money went to CASA.

BB: Tell me what CASA means.

JH: CASA is Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children of Baton Rouge. The quilt itself now belongs to the USS Nautical Kid Museum in Baton Rouge. We have docked in the Mississippi River a World War II Navy Destroyer, the USS Kid. This is the museum that is on the other side of the levee that accompanies our battleship. It could take you two hours to read the quilt.

BB: Tell me what you think makes a great quilt.

JH: I really like quilts that have imperfections in them. Sometimes the ones that are so perfect, to me, don't seem to have soul. Sometimes they don't seem to have soul unless you read the artist's statement. I do like the ones that are flawed, like they're real people. This one didn't have a boo-boo. I just had to stick a bandaide on it! It's still flawed.

BB: What do think makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection?

JH: I think a quilt that touches your heart and puts a lump in your throat. It's probably different things for different people. It's always that unexpected something. I still want to say one that isn't too controlled, yet I think this is a very controlled quilt. In that way, it's unrepresentative of my work. At the same time, I'm very proud of it.

BB: So quilting is important to your life?

JH: Yes.

BB: Tell me about how important.

JH: My grandmother was a Depression-era quilter, and I guess most of us can say that. Although from what I'm hearing, that may not necessarily be true. It may be true for those of us in the United State, but it certainly isn't true for quilters around the world. I grew up in the military, so grandmother's house was something you just visited between station stops. But when we would stay there, I remember sleeping under her quilts and feeling the fabric. What I was impressed with was a that a piece of my brother's pajamas would be right next to some polka-dots from Aunt Ruth's dress or some plaids from someone's shirt. I have never had a problem with color. When I first started quilting I joined a guild and people said they had problems with color, I thought it was a joke. If you have a problem with color, why are you making quilts? Why aren't you weaving baskets or something? The first quilt that I made, Dresden Plates, I had one book that had one color picture on the front page so it didn't show you how to put the colors together or how to sew the patches together. What I remembered was the juxtaposition of the two totally unrelated fabrics right next to each other. That's what I've always worked with, opposites attract. It seems to work just great. I don't know why other people didn't see that. Anyway, that's where my grandmother's influence came. I guess it was really very strong because the first time I sat down to sew the patches together I remembered being four. That was the secret to me, the two totally unrelated fabrics right next to each other. That means the two fabrics have to been different from each other in every way. That means high value contrast, not the same two textures, the sizes and scales of print. It just covers everything. It really works. Opposites attract. I guess I've always used that. We lived with them for a while when I was seven, and her quilting frame hung over my bed. I always knew I'd make quilts. I don't have any roots. I don't have a hometown, really, so to me the quilts are the hometown.

BB: And the high school class, and the reunion.

JH: I don't have any of that.

BB: We have a bit of time. Is there anything that I haven't asked you that you need to tell me?

JH: I think that one was this is representative of my work is that it's recycled fabric. I don't like to go out and buy stuff that matches. I do like to recycle stuff. These are the samples. The vest is the samples that Benartex sells. They are quilter's candy because I'm too cheap to use the good stuff for clothes. I save the trash from my quilts in baggies. I have a class that's called trash-bag vest. I'm too cheap to cut up the good stuff for clothes. It's what's left over from the quilt that becomes clothes. That's about it. I just want you to feel the quilt. I think tie-quilts, because of the different fabrics that have such a lush and wonderful feel, you can't stop touching them. It's the tactile feel of a quilt, I think, that connects us to them, that makes them intimate. The cloth is what we wear. None of us are nudists and go around nude. We're always used to having cloth next to our body, and that's why it's so intimate. These are especially touchable.

BB: I'm fascinated by your job. I think that's wonderful. Tell me about your family.

JH: I've been married thirty-one years and I have three children. My son is thirty and right now he's in Yemen. He was in the Persian Gulf when the USS Cole was bombed and his ship was sent there immediately. Just before I came to Festival his last email said that they had just taken aboard the sailors from the Cole and they were taking them to an airport. He couldn't say where. Then they were going to be flown back to Norfolk. He says they haven't been in dock in twenty-eight days. They had just gotten to the Persian Gulf, so they could never dock. They went straight to them. They are just floating out there somewhere. I don't know what airport they were taking them to. One day when the first alert on the high-security level was released, both my husband's and my emails were returned from him. He had told us when security was tight he could receive emails but couldn't send them. We didn't hear from him for a couple days then we heard from him. I don't know exactly where he is, but I hope he's safe. I have a daughter who is a graphic designer. I knew she was an artist by the time she was two. She was always a beautiful drawer and now she's a graphic designer working for an advertising firm in Atlanta. She does everything on the computer. Then I have a twenty-four year old daughter who works for a large corporation in Baton Rouge. She just bought a new house and we're moving next week.

BB: Tell me how your husband feels about your quilting.

JH: He loves them. He really does. My husband's step-grandmother, his stepfather's mother, who lived in east Texas, quilted. When he would go visit them in east Texas, he would always sleep under layers of quilts. As a matter of fact, when I met my husband in college, he had a sewing machine. I didn't have one. I always had to borrow one. Even though I had been sewing since I was sixteen, the sewing machine at my house was one a friend left there. We were just storing it there. As long as it was taking up space in my room, I decided to use it. My husband had the sewing because he used to do the Order of the Arrow with the Boy Scouts which is Indian dancing and he made his own costumes. He teases me that I married him to get his sewing machine. [laughs.]

BB: Has he ever quilted?

JH: No, he hasn't. He does numbers. I don't do numbers. I don't need to. Tom can do them in his head. When I need math I turn to him. He's been living with me long enough he speaks 'quiltese,' and he takes all my photographs.

BB: That's nice. Anything else I missed? Anything else you want to tell us about?

Unidentified Person: I'd like to hear about your quilt studio.

JH: I have a huge studio. It's actually too big. We're finally getting to the stage where we can call it the studio. For years it was the band room because I'm also a singer and a songwriter and a musician. When we started remodeling our house, it was nice because for a year we didn't have to do housework. We were living in a construction site. That's when I started playing in a band. Eventually we turned the back room into the band room. It was a songwriter's band. We would play each other's music and perform it around town. For a while I had to share. There's a drum set and a PA system over here, there's my old drafting table which I cut out, there's the other table where my daughter the artist is using paint, and all this other stuff. I sort of got more interested in quilting. I guess after being with musicians for so long--You can't talk to musicians so many times, you speak music language. What you speak when you're rehearsing is, 'What key is this song in? What's the next line? What are we doing next?' But you can't talk to musicians when their amp's plugged in and the drummer's got sticks in his hands. They're making too much noise. I love the instant communication you get from musicians because at the beginning of the year I went to Atlanta two different weeks and I made a CD of my music. It was so nice. I didn't know these people. I just walked in. As soon as you start work, you're speaking the same language. After it was over I turned to my daughters and said, 'Well, have I spent the last two years coordinate six group quilts because I miss this instant communication that musicians have?' I don't know. I think one of the reasons that I drifted closer to quilting was that I wanted to talk to people. I went from, 'Gee, what key is this song in, what's the next verse?' to real communication. It's different. I thought at first it would be the same thing but it wasn't. You don't get this instant communication. I'm getting on. I have really enjoyed this festival and the stories and talking to all the people.

BB: I'm so glad you're here. I've really enjoyed talking to you. I've been talking to Judy Holley. It is November 4, 12:05, Houston, Texas at the International Quilt Festival.



“Judy Holley,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 24, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1280.