Phyllis Branson




Phyllis Branson




Phyllis Branson


Jo Francis Greenlaw

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics/United Notions


The International Quilt Festival
Houston, TX USA


Rachel Grove


Jo Frances Greenlaw (JFG): [tape begins mid sentence.] November 3, 2001 at the Houston Quilt Show [International Quilt Festival.]. Our interviewee is Phyllis Branson from Navasota, Texas, who has brought a quilt for us to--a large quilt, 85 inches square--for us to talk about today. The interviewer is Jo Frances Greenlaw and the scribe is Lorraine Jackson. We are starting this interview at 9:47. Excuse me. 9:42.

Unidentified Speaker [scribe, Lorraine Jackson]: 10:42. Excuse me.

JFG: 10:42 a.m. and we are looking at a hand quilted, cotton, full size quilt. Ms. Branson, could you spell your name for us for the record, so that we have it correctly.

Phyllis Branson (PB): P-H-Y-L-L-I-S. B-R-A-N-S-O-N.

JFG: And you're going to have to speak up because we have a lot of noise in this hallway.

PB: Okay.

JFG: Okay, thank you. [laughter.] Well, Ms. Branson is considered by me and probably a lot of people as a traditional quilter. And do you have a name for your quilt?

PB: It's called "Biblical Blocks." Each block represents a Bible verse and the reference from the Bible where you would find it. And if you look on the back of every block, there's a reference, in fact the name of it, and where you find that particular verse. [3 second pause.]

JFG: [inaudible.]

PB: There are 16 blocks of Bible verses, and then in the center there's this big one, which is called 'The Tree of Life,' and then even the appliquéd, quilted border has meaning as it's a Rose of Sharon border. It goes all the way around the outside a flower with vines and leaves and rosebuds [3 second pause.]. So it really is all Biblical blocks, and every one of them has a meaning.

JFG: What kind of quilting are you incorporating here? Is there piecing and appliqué?

PB: Piecing and appliqué both, in this quilt, floral stripes, and appliquéd flowers. The quilt has the mitered corners and matching stripes and flowers, and then when I bought this fabric I really looked and looked and looked for the floral fabric that looked just right. Well, it was really hard to find a floral stripe print and I came up with this one, because I like the colors, and then it wasn't lined up, so I had to add a little stripe on each side of each one of these to make it come out the right size, so it would fit. Everything in a quilt has to be the right size or it's not going to come out right.

JFG: So you are describing the quilt as if somebody could see it without being able to see it, and this is good.

PB: Oh, good.

JFG: I like what--the way you're explaining the quilt. You're hand quilting. Is this a running stitch?

PB: Oh, pretty much so, just a regular quilting stitch. I just try to make them as small as possible and make it look pretty straight.

JFG: Do you use machine stitching?

PB: Oh, yes. I put the blocks together by machine, but when it comes to the quilting, that's all by hand.

JFG: Was it done by you?

PB: Yes, every bit of it. Well, I'd like to say that I was just barely getting over the hip operation, and my good friend, one of my quilt ladies, cut my strips for me because I could not stand and cut them but I was going to work on it just as soon as I could. I was going to make something match, and it wouldn't match, and I kept fighting it. I wanted it to be my best work but I couldn't stand up any longer. I knew I was going to finish it, but she stood and cut my strips for me because I could not stand up any longer.

JFG: If you are working on an ironing board, are you saying that you do not have a large studio for your work?

PB: Well, no. I took my second bedroom in my apartment for my sewing room and when I want a table I have to use my dining room table, which is in my little dinette area that comes off my living room and I open the leaves up in the table. I put the cutting board on top of that and lay my quilt stuff out on it but it's not the same height as an ironing board. I mean you got to bend over and you put something on the table you got to bend over, and that'll make your back hurt. I also use the ironing board and it's just the right height so I work on that a good bit.

JFG: This should point up to the record that Ms. Branson is a home, traditional quilter. You are not a professional?

PB: Oh, no.

JFG: Do you sell your quilts?

PB: I have sold two baby quilts but I didn't really plan to make them to sell when I made them. I would just make them and somebody wanted them and I said, 'Well, okay.'

JFG: What happens to the quilts you make?

PB: Mostly I give them away--mostly family, and then I take some of them--the baby quilts, most of them, went to the church bazaar and two of them I sold at the bazaar--A lady from church wanted one for her grandbaby, and wanted to know did I have a baby quilt, and I said, 'Well, I've got a baby quilt I'm working on.' She said, well, she wanted it. 'Will you sell it?' I said, 'Okay.' So I sold her that one and my daughter had been to Memphis and a lady found out that I made some baby quilts and she says, 'Well, I need one. I want to take one to a relative.' So I sent her pictures of some of the quilts and I mailed it to her and she sent back a check. That was a baby buggy quilt, a really neat little quilt.

JFG: How long have you been quilting?

PB: Oh, maybe--about twenty-five years.

JFG: Do you have a quilting tradition in your family?

PB: Not really. I remember we always had quilts on our beds. I know Momma didn't even sew. She didn't--but she did quilt a little bit, because I remember seeing them when I was just a kid and they'd sit around and quilt, and I thought, 'Oh, that's a pretty boring job.' They did, Momma said, shell quilting, and they had that piece of chalk on a string and you tied knots, you know, every inch or so and you took that knot down and made a little half circle on the quilt with the chalk and then you take your string up and, you know, another little half circle and take your chalk, and then you'd quilt with that pattern, so that's the way they'd quilt back then. I thought it was kind of funny.

JFG: Well, because of your quilting later in life rather than as a child, do you think that your region that you were living in had any influence on the designs of your quilts?

PB: Well, I always liked traditional things.

JFG: You are a Texan?

PB: Yes, I am.

JFG: But you live many years--

PB: In Tennessee.

JFG: In Tennessee. So would the Tennessee tradition show up in your quilting?

PB: I wouldn't expect so because the things you've seen all your life you would become accustomed to. You know you like this or you like that, and I like the traditional things. I like traditional furniture, you know, just old fuddy duddy like.

JFG: Tell me about the colors that you have chosen. Do you start out with a color plan or do you go to the store and see what's available?

PB: Well, I think it could be either way. This one I think I knew I had to find this border, flower border, so when I found this flower border even though I had to put an extra piece on it to make wide enough I just knew that was the one I wanted and then it's got colors in it so I had to take the colors from this for the rest of the quilt so that's why it's got this lavender color in it which I don't believe I would ever pick but it had to be in there because there it is to blend and you know and the other colors--they just--they all came from the floral stripe border.

JFG: [6 second pause.] When did you make this quilt?

PB: I believe it was 1996.

JFG: And how is it used?

PB: Truthfully, it's not used. It's just folded up and put on the quilt rack at the end of the hall. My son-in-law made a beautiful walnut quilt rack for me and I display my quilts on that. It did go to church one time. That lady wanted to have a program at the last minute. I said, 'Well, I don't have the program book, but if this is a help to you, you can take my "Biblical Blocks" quilt, but I don't have a program to go with it. She says, 'We'll take care of the program.' She was really quick to figure a program out so at that point I put a sleeve on the top back of the quilt and put it on a curtain rod.

JFG: So this quilt has a story?

PB: I guess all quilts do.

JFG: Do your quilts all have stories?

PB: Somehow, someway they do, yes.

JFG: [3 second pause.] Are they written down?

PB: [laughter.] I'm afraid not. [3 second pause.] But the ladies really enjoyed that program. It made them look up the Bible verse for every block that I used and they liked the program.

JFG: When you first started quilting, what did your quilts look like compared to what you're doing today?

PB: Bad.

JFG: Bad. [laughter.]

PB: The first one I did was a Cathedral Window, but it was ugly, But, I've learned how to do it correctly now. My daughter says, 'Momma, could you make me a quilt?' I said, 'Oh, I can't make a quilt. I could piece it, but there's no way I could get it quilted.' I couldn't think of what I'd do with all that big old quilt frame in the house, you know. 'So, well, if you piece it,' she said, 'I'll have it quilted.' So I said, 'Okay.' So she said, 'Well, make me an earth tone.' Well, I went to buy earth tones, and you know they showed me the earth--I mean they were dull looking things, so I put orange in it. Needless to say that was an orange quilt. Well anyway, she did get it quilted and is still using that quilt. I keep thinking I wish it would wear out. It'll never wear out.

JFG: How do you go about doing your quilting? How do you use the--You don't use a large frame on the floor?

PB: No, I learned to do lap quilting. I got a book, Georgia Bonesteel and I read all that in terms of how you could do lap quilting and I went on from there and I could do it myself without having to put up a frame and all that stuff. The system I've learned that you can put three layers together and baste it and you can still hold it in your lap and quilt. I usually use an oval hoop, but you can do it without the hoop that way.

JFG: How much time do you devote to quilting?

PB: [3 second pause.] Whatever it takes. It's possible to make a quilt in a month. I mean if it's just a pieced quilt and you've got time to quilt some every afternoon. I think close to a year on this one, but it had to be right. It had to be all matched, and every single block was different, so I know it took at least a year.

JFG: So you're quilting everyday as a--something you love, not as a profession?

PB: Well, I love to do it. I like to have something to do. I don't want to sit down and do nothing.

JFG: Most of the quilters that we have talked to are professional quilters and you will see that down on the floor. Do you think you could become a professional quilter?

PB: No, honestly if I had to be a professional quilter, I believe it would take all the fun out of it. I honestly think that nobody would enjoy it once you paid them what they're really worth, and I just make them to give them away. Now that's about it.

JFG: [5 second pause.] When we see quilts in museums do you--is there something that let's you know that quilt belongs in a museum.

PB: Oh, yes--Oh, yes.

JFG: What makes--a quilt appropriate for a museum?

PB: The workmanship and when there's something of that particular time that they have put into that quilt. I've seen one that the--our presidents were all on it or some political event or something of that order would be on the quilt, and you knew that that wasn't a modern quilt. Couldn't be. Not with that particular motif or design, and they're usually, usually done--the ladies did beautiful quilts in the past.

JFG: How do you feel about the modern quilts, the abstracts, the bright colors that we're seeing and the machine quilting?

PB: Well, they do beautiful work, but that's just not my thing. I could see all this abstract stuff, and I think honestly sometimes they must have a nightmare.

JFG: [laughter.]

PB: That's bad, isn't it? But anyway, that's what I think, just how could they have ever thought that up? But they are fabulous, and they are imaginative, and they're colorful, and they do beautiful work, but as you can see, I like traditional things.

JFG: Do you quilt alone, or are you a member of quilting group?

PB: I'm a member of a quilting group. We're not a guild. We're just a quilting group, but we only quilt together once a month, so we're mostly on our own.

JFG: Do these other quilters give you ideas?

PB: Oh, yes. You wouldn't believe the beautiful things that they make. They do beautiful work.

JFG: Maybe--

PB: And we help each other, and that is really great. Anything you get can stumped on somebody there is going to know how to do it. And they're always glad to do it. One of the quilt ladies showed me how to make a quilting template with plastic sheet and how to use it as a stencil.

JFG: Do you--

PB: I didn't have a light box back then. Since then my daughter's gotten me a light box.

JFG: How do you use a light box?

PB: Oh, you just look through, having put your fabric on top of it, and you see it--see through it, and you can put your design underneath the fabric.

JFG: Do you have a favorite part of quilting? Is there some portion of it that you enjoy more than others?

PB: This quilt was fun, because every block was different. It was really a challenge to put them together and make all these things work. It really was, and then to see how it was going to turn out when you got them together. You may have had something entirely different from what you thought it was going to be before you started and matched all these little points and all these little mitered corners and so on, and I like to quilt. I don't like the cutting. I just don't like to have to stand and cut things but you know that's just one of the hazards of quilting.

JFG: [3 second pause.] That shows too. If you weren't quilting, what would you be doing instead?

PB: [3 second pause.] I don't know. I've just about quit sewing. I've got to find me some new hobbies I guess.

JFG: [laughter.]

PB: I used to make a lot of my own clothes, and I don't like to wear anything I make anymore. Since I'm church historian, I guess I would work on church history more.

JFG: Does your interest in your church history show up in other quilts? It must in this one, because of your title?

PB: Well, maybe so. That--I have always gone to church and been a religious person. I think maybe that would probably show in this quilt, but not all of them. They're just patterns that I thought were pretty. For some reason I wanted to make it at that time.

JFG: If you're choosing a quilt as a gift to make for a family member, how do you decide what to do for that person?

PB: Well, when my granddaughter was little she wanted a quilt that she could hang up in her room, and so I made her Grandmother's Fan, and I made it out of pink and black and put lace on the ends--something I thought would be appropriate for a little girl, and she did love it, and she still has it, and then when I wanted to make something for my grandson I thought of the Indian quilt--and I collected designs from the library, and that one was actually original. It actually was, because of the designs, and my daughter-in-law sent me an Indian book of designs. She'd saved the book of authentic Indian designs. Then I used these designs and put all these different things in the quilt. Well, then I got to the fish made of multicolored fabric. I put this fish on too, and then I asked my grandson what kind of fish it was. He says, 'I don't know, Grandma, what kind of fish that is.' I said, 'Well, obviously it's a rainbow trout.' That quilt was fun, but I did need the satin stitch on the sewing machine, because there were little bitty things. You never would have gotten to that any other way, and then I had to go back and embroider some of them. [3 second pause.] The whole family helped.

JFG: Does color ever influence you when you're planning a quilt?

PB: Oh, yes. Probably all of my colors match a little bit together, but this one I started at the border, and I picked out the colors to look good with that border.

JFG: Since you live in a small community, do you find that quilting is a daily common activity in the small community?

PB: No, the ladies I quilt with come from other places, and I don't think there's even one that lives in Navasota.

JFG: Are we losing this tradition?

PB: You would think so, but when you look downstairs at all those beautiful quilts you know people are still quilting, but when you go in and around your friends and ask them they say, 'Oh, no, I don't really think I could quilt.' No one is going to put them together for me. Everybody's got quilt tops that grandmother didn't finish. I will finish every quilt before I start the next one, because I'm not going to leave a whole bunch of old tops there for somebody else to finish.

JFG: Would you ever consider quilting somebody's old blocks?

PB: No.

JFG: What do you--

PB: Just don't want to.

JFG: What do you think about the brand-new quilts that we can buy in the department stores for 25 and 30 and 40 dollars that are coming--that are imported?

PB: I see them all the time, and when you look at them a little ways off they're pretty. Their colors are pretty nice, most of them, and they use our patterns. I think they got our quilt patterns from somewhere. Oh, you can recognize patterns. If you get up close to them, the stitching is really pretty bad and most of them and the fabric don't look too bad until you look at the white part usually and that's usually pretty bad. You wonder if they would wash.

JFG: Do you think it's hurting our quilting tradition in America to have these cheaper copies coming in?

PB: I think people may buy them and use them on their beds and around, but I think if they really want a quality quilt they would want one more like this. I would think so.

JFG: [4 second pause.] Do you have anything that you would like to say especially today that we have not thought to ask you?

PB: Well, I'll talk about original quilts--the other original quilt I made years back was a Crazy Quilt for my granddaughter, and I put all these little blocks, and I found some fabric that had faces on it with a little girl with red hair, and I put these in, because my granddaughter has red hair. I used every decorative stitch I could find on the sewing machine to put all those blocks together, and she used that for her bed quilt. Oh, I went to the museum where my daughter works and they had a quilt display there and I looked at all those beautiful quilts and I thought about that for a while, and I got ready to make a quilt one time--I decided that I had to make a quilt to cover my couch so I made Courthouse Steps and I saw that hanging out there, and it was a quilt pattern idea that I had gotten out there. Court House Steps so I took the little cover arms off the couch and went to the fabric store and bought all those colors and made that for the couch and I made pillows to match it and I left it on the couch for a year or so. I didn't want to sit on it. [laughter.] It was too--I went to so much trouble to make that quilt. You just didn't want to go and sit on it. So anyway, I still have the quilt.

JFG: How many quilts do you have in your collection?

PB: Oh, I can't tell you how many I've got. I know I've made at least twenty-two plus, six baby quilts plus wall hangings and other things but I think I've given away most of the good ones.

JFG: Do you collect antique quilts?

PB: No.

JFG: So you do--do you buy other people's quilts?

PB: No, I never have. We had a quilt given to us when we married. This was a whole lot of years ago and it was Dresden Plate in blue and white. My husband's grandmother made it and so I was trying to be nice and just tell her how much we appreciate that pretty quilt. It was so nice to have it to have it to cuddle up in it. It was so nice and warm. That was the really wrong thing to say. You were not supposed to use that quilt. It was something you were supposed to take care of and you made it and if you get that cold you just covered yourself up with some old coats.

JFG: [laughter.]

PB: I knew I never did like that quilt form then on.

JFG: Well, that opinion was different from yours. You think quilts should be used?

PB: Well, why not? [3 second pause.] I wouldn't let anybody use this one, I don't think, but most of them I have made I expected them to be used, and at least, if not on the bed for cover, at least for a bed spread. [7 second pause.] Who needs a whole bunch of things to put in the closet and not ever use. I mean you have to use things. Oh, I could tell you about the [3 second pause.] Sunbonnet Sue quilt. That was fun. Each one was representing a different month, and it's just like dressing dolls. If you ever thought it was fun to dress dolls--

JFG: Yes.

PB: Well, then you know in January she's doing ice skating -- she would wear clothes for that month. That was fun.

JFG: What's your opinion of a poor quilt?

PB: A poor quilt? Well, when your colors weren't really good or when the quilting was really bad, and--Oh yes, and if these little things don't match, these little points--If the squares come together and the points of the squares are not met or your diamonds or whatever, that's not good--just the workmanship and color.

JFG: [10 second pause.] How does this style quilt fit into your quilting history, the types of things you generally make? Is this typical of your kind of work?

PB: I don't believe this one's typical. I believe I was looking for a real challenge when I picked this out, and I really got it, and most of my quilts have been more of just plain figures I guess. [3 second pause.] I suppose everybody makes their own but the Country Bride is a very nice quilt. I made it in burgundy and shades like that, and then my daughter-in-law wanted one just like it and so I made one blue. It was appliquéd and quilted blocks put together alternately.

JFG: Have you entered your quilts in quilt exhibits?

PB: Only in Navasota when we have Nostalgia Days, and I won a first place there, and then I got a viewer's choice on my white quilt. That was--that one should have been first prize, but anyway, I was so careful that the stitching is so even on that quilt.

JFG: Would you consider entering a quilt in the--or submitting a quilt for exhibit at the Houston quilt show?

PB: I don't know, and it'd be such problem to get it here, and I just don't really know that I've got one good enough to go in there. [5 second pause.] But they get fabulous quilts in there. I know they do. I've seen them.

JFG: [3 second pause.] Well, I think we are about to end this interview unless you have anything else you would like to add.

PB: [3 second pause.] Well, I don't know of anything else I can tell you about quilts. I enjoy quilting. It's a fun thing to do, and it's addictive. Soon as you get one made you see another one you just really think I've just got to make this one. I'll never live long enough to make that many quilts. Nobody will, but I would love--wish I could, and there's so many gorgeous patterns out there that, you know, you don't even have to make them up. There's just so many gorgeous patterns out there that there's just so much that would be worth doing.

JFG: Well, thank you. Phyllis Branson has been our interviewee today with her Biblical stories quilt that she has brought from Navasota, Texas. The interviewer was Jo Frances Greenlaw. The scribe is Lorraine Jackson. We are completing this interview at ten minutes after eleven on the third of November, 2001, at the Houston Quilt Show in Houston, Texas. I would like to make a little addendum here that Ms. Branson is a traditional home quilter. She is not professional. She is bringing to us something that is unique today, because generally in our interviews we have had career and professional quilters, and she is typical of the type of American woman who is working at home with their own talent never expecting to have any recognition, although you all deserve it. Thank you so much for coming.

PB: Thank you.


“Phyllis Branson,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 21, 2024,