Zena Thorpe


Q.S.O.S. 129-B.jpg


Zena Thorpe




Zena Thorpe


Judy Holley

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics/ United Notions


International Quilt Festival
Houston, TX USA


Rachel Grove


Judy Heinz (JH): This is Judy Holley. Today's date is November 3, 2001. It is 11:15, and I'm conducting an interview with Zena Thorpe for Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project in Houston, Texas. Zena, I would like for you to tell us about this quilt and the inspiration for it.

Zena Thorpe (ZT): It's largely based on "The Book of Kells." It's an early illuminated manuscript produced by Celtic monks. It was thought to be around the year seven or eight hundred. It was discovered in the Monastery of Kells in Ireland in I think 1251, and I've taken different elements from different pages of "The Book of Kells" and put them together in my interpretation of "The Book of Kells." All of the elements and design on the quilt are taken directly from "The Book of Kells."

JH: Now when you say an illuminated manuscript, is this in color?

ZT: Yes, that's what they mean by illuminated manuscripts. Usually the title page would be very heavily illuminated with colors and perhaps in gold leaf and heavily decorated.

JH: And your colors represent the colors from the original manuscript?

ZT: I have used more or less the colors from the original manuscript.

JH: Okay, could you interpret some of the designs and what they mean for us?

ZT: Well--

JH: Start with the medallion.

ZT: "The Books of Kells" is actually the story of the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and they were--Matthew was always portrayed as an angel. Mark was always portrayed as a lion. Luke was portrayed as an ox and St. John as an eagle, and so they are on the quilt the--

JH: Could you show us who's who now?

ZT: Matthew. [pointing to far left.]

JH: Matthew.

ZT: Mark. [pointing to far right.]

JH: Mark.

ZT: Luke. [pointing to left center.]

JH: Luke.

ZT: And John. [pointing to right center.]

JH: And John. [spoken simultaneously with Zena.]

ZT: And so--

JH: They're all at the bottom of the quilt.

ZT: Yes. And the rest are just all different, very intricate, Celtic designs taken from "The Book of Kells." I have tried to reproduce the different elements as closely as possible, because I just felt that I should not try and improve on the work of those old Celtic monks, and so I did try to reproduce them as closely as I could.

JH: Does the center medallion mean anything specific?

ZT: I don't know what it means. My son thought it meant Volkswagen, but it's--[laughs.] I don't think so. The bottom circular medallion I--

JH: The center medallion on the bottom.

ZT: I more or less had to draw up myself, because I only had only a picture of about one inch diameter to copy to draw it, but that is a continuing strip, goes all the way around, and it is a continuous strip that--at least twelve yards of bias of strip in it.

JH: Now do the different little circles surrounding the medallion, do they mean anything specific or they just a design?

ZT: I really don't know what the designs signify. There are quite a few with snakes in them--

JH: Yes, I see the snakes.

ZT: And I wonder, but I don't know. I don't know what they signify.

JH: Is that the serpent, the Devil perhaps?

ZT: Well, there was a British story that St. Patrick drove all the snakes--

JH: Snakes. [spoken simultaneously with Zena.]

ZT: Out of Ireland--

JH: Ireland. [spoken simultaneously with Zena.]

ZT: At one time, so whether there is something that could be a connection with St. Patrick I really don't know, but they did use snakes, the symbol of the snake, quite a lot on "The Book of Kells."

JH: And how long did it take you to work on this particular quilt?

ZT: Took about a year and a half. It just seems to always take me about that length of time with a quilt. I spend about half the time doing the top with appliqué and then the other half doing the hand quilting.

JH: And this is entirely--handwork?

ZT: It's entirely handwork except for the binding.

JH: Except for the binding.

ZT: I put the binding on with the machine, but I think that's allowed, isn't it?

JH: Yes, it is. How long have you been quilting?

ZT: About fourteen years.

JH: About fourteen years?

ZT: Uh hum.

JH: And I could tell from your accent that you're not from America.

ZT: I'm from England originally, but now California.

JH: Now Cal--

ZT: I've been living in this country for 34 years I think.

JH: Were there any quilts in your childhood?

ZT: No.

JH: No?

ZT: No.

JH: You're [inaudible.]

ZT: My mother always did a lot of sewing, dressmaking, and embroidery, and all sorts of handwork, but she never did any quilting.

JH: So when did you see your first quilt?

ZT: [5 second pause.] Well, there were quilts made in England, but I just never really got interested in it until I came to this country.

JH: Came to this country, and what year was that?

ZT: 1967.

JH: 1967, and what inspired you about the American quilt?

ZT: Well, I was asked to participate in a project for my local historical society. They were making a quilt to commemorate the centennial of my adopted hometown in Chatsworth, California, and I was invited to participate in this project, and I said, ‘Well, I don't know anything about quilting, but I'll have a go,' and I did the little pioneer, the local pioneer church, and I was quite surprised myself that it turned out that it actually looked like the little pioneer church, and from that point on I started to see everything in terms of--

JH: Of a quilt?

ZT: Fabric appliqué.

JH: Uh huh. So are you exclusively--

ZT: And so I--

JH: An appliqué artist?

ZT: I joined a quilt guild at that point, and--

JH: And that was what year?

ZT: Oh, 1988, I think.

JH: 1988.

ZT: And just about exclusively appliqué, yes. I really--piecing drives me bananas. I really find it very difficult, and I know that piecers find appliqué very daunting, but I think we each do our own thing—as we do best.

JH: Did you have any art training in your background? You draw--drew as a child, or--?

ZT: No, I was--Yes, I did. I always was interested in drawing and any sort of artwork, but actually I was a scientist, and someone pointed out once to me that, well, maybe that counts for my attention to detail. With science--biochemistry actually--close enough is not good enough. It has to be spot on, and so someone pointed out that maybe it was my training as a biochemist, that accounts for my attention to detail.

JH: Now do you teach?

ZT: Yes, I do?

JH: And you teach in California or all over the world or--?

ZT: Well, I have--not all over the world, but I have in England and Scotland, Ireland, Wales and in a number of places in this country, yes.

JH: And you teach hand appliqué?

ZT: Yes, hand appliqué. Pictorial appliqué.

JH: [7 second pause.] Now what do you think makes a great quilt? I know you won several of these big awards in Houston. What sets those quilts apart from the others?

ZT: For me a quilt has to be something that not only grabs my attention, but holds my attention, something that I want to keep looking and keep seeing different things. The type of quilt that when I've seen one quarter, I've seen the entire thing doesn't really interest me an awful lot. I like something that will--I can keep seeing new things on it.

JH: [8 second pause.] How is quilting important to your life?

ZT: Well, it's just a complete obsession. [laughter.] I get totally absorbed in a quilt, and I don't put it down until I've finished it really. I average between three and four hours a day. Sometimes I might spend six or even more hours a day, and I just--it's like raising a child a little bit I think. I just enjoy watching it grow everyday.

JH: Do you work on one project at a time, or do you have several going at once?

ZT: I--one project almost exclusively--

Unidentified Speaker: [faintly.] Could you scoot over just a little?

ZT: No, because we're doing an interview.

Unidentified Speaker: Okay.

[several seconds of voices attempting to take a picture of Zena's quilt.]

Another Unidentified Speaker: You can move over. You can move over.

JH: They really love your quilt. You've already mentioned that you worked with some historical preservation in quilting, and how is that important for your community or your region?

ZT: Yes, I worked on the Chatsworth Historical Society quilt, and it shows all different areas of Chatsworth. You know there was a lot of filming done in the--

JH: Right.

ZT: In the early days of the Hollywood filming in Chatsworth, and so that is on the quilt. There's all sorts of different areas, and so it was actually my suggestion that we make a quilt to commemorate the centennial of my hometown, Chatsworth, in California, and that was an interesting project.

JH: And have you worked on any other historical quilts?

ZT: Oh, the California Sesquicentennial quilt. Yes, I was co-designer of the California Sesquicentennial. It's a huge map, ten feet square map of California and showing all the different--different interesting spots of California, the history, and the present of California.

JH: Well, I could tell from this quilt and your involvement in those quilts that you have a deep interest in history.

ZT: I was the president of our local historical society at one point, and my husband was also president, so we're still involved in the historical society.

JH: And what do you think makes a great quilt [3 second pause.] ready for a museum, a museum quality quilt?

ZT: I think it should be well made, well constructed, but it should tell a story as well. I think that a quilt tells a story is very important for to say--Historians have used--like the "Bayeux Tapestry." Historians for centuries have used women's needlework to actually piece together events in history, and I think that it's very important that we do this.

JH: So you've already done these quilts for California, and this quilt is from "The Book of Kells." You have any other quilts about the history of Great Britain?

ZT: I have a quilt called "Pageantry," which tells the story of the art of heraldry and the development of that important art form in Europe, and it has all different elements and symbols and designs taken from heraldry.

JH: Now what will happen to this quilt after the show? Is this one that you'll sleep under at home?

ZT: No--

JH: Go on the wall?

ZT: [inaudible because Judy is speaking at the same time.] No, they're rolled up.

JH: They're rolled up.

ZT: I have six large quilts now, and they're all rolled, but I do take them out and show them and speak to guilds and associations quite frequently. This quilt is going to go to Japan for their big Tokyo show in January, and then it's coming back here to Houston to go to the show in Barcelona, Spain, in April.

JH: Do you have any children that you'll pass it down to, or do you sell your work?

ZT: I have sold small quilts. That's all, but I've never sold any yet, large quilts, because no one can afford them. You know we quilters make probably two dollar and fifty cents an hour if we're lucky, [laughter.] but I have sold small quilts, and I have four children, yes.

JH: Yes.

ZT: A girl, boy, girl, boy.

JH: And they will inherit your quilts?

ZT: Yes, just as long as--They do have instructions that they're not to use them to--

JH: Yes.

ZT: To mop up oil on the garage floor.

JH: That's right. So--

ZT: Or take to the beach to sunbathe on. [laughter.]

JH: Well, how do you think quilts should be used?

ZT: Well, really for me we've gone way beyond making blankets. It has developed into a real legitimate art form, and finally I think it's accepted as a legitimate art form, and of course they need to be hanging in museums. This was brought home to me recently. I went to the new Getty Museum in California in Los Angeles, and I saw the hanging tapestries, and they're extremely valuable and extremely treasured these large tapestries.

JH: And what is about the date for those? Do you know?

ZT: Well, I don't know. Probably two or three hundred years--

JH: Two or three hundred.

ZT: Or could be more, and it shocked me that really--they're not a whole lot different from quilting, and it's time that the large museums appreciated the art of quilting, and there's no reason why they should not stand along side the ancient tapestries that are very valuable.

JH: Have you stayed in close contact with your friends in Great Britain? Do they value quilts in Britain as much--as well as they do here?

ZT: They're learning to.

JH: Yes, they're learning to?

ZT: Yes.

JH: Is there anything that I haven't asked that you would like to talk about specifically?

ZT: Well, I am usually asked what is it that I'm most proud of with this--with this quilt.

JH: With this quilt. [spoken simultaneously with Zena.]

ZT: And what I'm most proud of is that I did it.

JH: You did it.

ZT: [laughter.] I felt when I started out--this has been in my mind for quite some years. I was fascinated by "The Book of Kells," and I thought it would--I'd like to make a quilt, but I thought, ‘No, too difficult, too complicated, too involved,' but eventually it kept calling out to me, and so I did make a start on it, and I actually finished it, and I did it.

JH: Okay, what's the next challenge?

ZT: I have another one half done.

JH: Is it on "The Book of Kells" or--?

ZT: No.

JH: No?

ZT: It's very different, and I'm not telling.

JH: Okay. [laughter.] Alrighty. Let's see, Brenda, [scribe, Brenda Horton.] is there anything you'd like to ask?

Brenda Horton (BH): Yes. How do you think your work will influence future quilters?

ZT: Well, I hope that it will encourage people to grow a little bit in the textile arts, to appreciate that we are doing more than just making blankets.

JH: Do you quilt at a big frame or a small hoop?

ZT: I have a fourteen-inch hoop.

JH: You--all of this was quilted in a fourteen-inch hoop?

ZT: Yes, my arm won't stretch any further than a fourteen-inch hoop anyway, so there's not really much point in using a larger one.

BH: [3 second pause.] Do you have any particular fabrics or materials or notions that you enjoy using?

ZT: No, I have literally thousands of different scraps. I collect scraps, and my friends will turn over all their little scraps to me, and so I have bags and bags full of scraps. I don't have a beautifully arranged studio.

BH: Right.

ZT: They're just in plastic bags full of scraps, but I did eventually get around to organizing all the blue ones in one bag and all the red ones in one bag and all the yellow ones et cetera.

JH: And you have a lot of hand dyes in here, but you didn't dye them yourself.

ZT: No--

JH: Okay.

ZT: No, the commercial people do a lot better job than I can, and I don't want all the mess.

JH: Alrighty. I would like to thank Zena for allowing me to interview her today as part of the 2001 Quilters' S.O.S.-Save Our Stories project, and our interview concluded at--

BH: [3 second pause.] 11:33.

JH: 11:33, and we thank you very much.

[tape recorder shut off and turned back on again.]

JH: Okay, this is a minute later, and we're asking one more question. Do the quilts in Great Britain look like yours or are they more traditional American quilts?

ZT: I think the--especially the older quilts are more story type quilts. They will tell a story rather--but they are getting more into the American type pieced quilts -you know there's a story that Henry VIII had twenty-six quilts made as a wedding gift for bride number five, I think it was, and these were all heavily embroidered with gold and silver threads, and but you know they were more the embroidered type, probably more like this appliqué type, I think, but they are getting into pieced more, I think. The American quilts really started with the pioneers, didn't they?

JH: Yes.

ZT: And all the English quilts are--

JH: Whole cloth?

ZT: A lot of whole cloth, yes, or heavily embroidered or appliquéd.

JH: It seems like I've heard--wasn't it Marie Antoinette who when she was in prison did a lot of quilting or handwork?

ZT: Mary Queen of Scots.

JH: Mary Queen of Scots. That's who it was.

ZT: Yes--yes--yes.

JH: And isn't there a quilt in England--some of her work hanging? Have you seen that?

ZT: I don't know. Could be. She did a lot of cross-stitch.

JH: Cross-stitch?

ZT: Yes.

BH: Are there any other Europeans that you can think of in historically that have influenced textiles?

ZT: [4 second pause.] No, I don't know, but of course the Royal School of Needlework has been doing this beautiful--I took a tour of the Houses of Parliament in 1988, I think it was, and the hangings in the Houses of Parliament made by the Royal School of Needlework are just breathtaking, incredible, and so they have been doing this sort of work for centuries--

JH: Is that needlework with thread not with fabric, right?

ZT: Usually with thread, but often with fabric as well. There is a tapestry, which rivals the "Bayeux Tapestry," which was made--it's called the "Overlord Embroidery," and this was to commemorate the Allied landing in 1944 on the beaches of northern France, and this is all appliqué and embroidery, and it is absolutely incredible. It's two hundred and seventy-two fee long, and it is a beautiful thing. It tells the whole story of the Allied invasion.

JH: Allied invasion. [spoken simultaneously with ZT.]

BH: Where did you say this was located?

ZT: It's in Portsmouth in the south coast of England where the Allied invasion started out.

JH: Oh yes. They flew from Portsmouth to Normandy.

ZT: Well, no, they sailed.

JH: Okay.

ZT: They sailed, and it is a magnificent thing, and that is all made by the Royal School of Needlework, but that is appliqué.

JH: Appliqué?

ZT: Embroidery.

ZT: Appliqué and embroidery?

ZT: Yes. And it's really worth seeing if you go to England.

JH: Well, thank you, Zena.

BH: Thank you so much.

JH: Thank you.

BH: Will we end it?

JH: And this is Judy Holley again, and we'd like to thank Zena for the interview, and we are concluded again at [3 second pause.] 11:30--

BH: 11:35.

JH: 35. [tape ends.]

[transcriber's note: The following notes were added to the scriber's sheet based on comments following the tape-recorded interview.]

Further comments: Bias-cut, Sew on side, turn and stitch down; uses no template plastic, etc.only two cardboard layers glued together.


“Zena Thorpe,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 16, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1314.