Jo Ann Musso




Jo Ann Musso




Jo Ann Musso


Pauline Salzman

Interview Date


Interview sponsor



Houston, Texas


Nathaniel Stephan


Note: The beginning of the interview was recorded at too high a speed but moves to normal speed but often becomes very slow. The interview was also conducted on the convention center floor making the noise level on the tape particularly difficult to hear.

Pauline Salzman (PS): Good morning we're here with the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. It is November 2; Saturday and it is 10:35 a.m. I'm here with Jo Ann Musso, J-O-A-N-N M-U-S-S-O. My name is Pauline [tape moves to normal speed.] Salzman P-A-U-L-I-N-E S-A-L-Z-M-A-N and the scribe is Karen Plummer K-A-R-E-N P-L-U-M-M-E-R. Welcome Jo Ann it's so nice to have you here and I know you brought a quilt with you today. Would you like to tell me about it?

Jo Ann Musso (JM): About the quilt? Sure. This is the first quilt I ever made. I have been a seamstress for 45 years and I made this quilt for my granddaughter for her graduation. It's a Texas star. It's bright graduated colors. It has blue, lavender, green and purple. The star is then appliquéd with violets. My granddaughter, Nicole, she is 22. When she was a little girl, we developed this love of lavender and purple. The label on the back is a letter to her and it says, 'Nicole my dearest love, from the first moment we saw you we knew our lives would never be the same. It was love at first sight. We can only imagine what a wonderful accomplished young woman you would become. You did not disappoint us but have given us unparalleled joy. Begun in 1998 as a gift for your 1999 graduation from Bishop Lynch High School this quilt was finished in 2001. A true labor of love, although I did all the stitching it could not have been finished without Papa's understanding and encouragement, you know we are a team in everything we do. Thank you for making us so proud of you. We love you Nee and Papa. Nee is her name for me. I asked her why she named me Nee well she, 'I didn't name you Nee, God named you Nee. The label has her picture on her graduation day and my husband and I. This is Nicole's and she has had it on her bed now and I'm amazed at how clean it really is. [laughs.]

PS: Tell me about your interest in quilting.

JM: When I was a child in the forties, we spent a lot of time with my grandmother who lived in Longview, TX and she had a quilting frame that we dropped down from the ceiling at night and sat around and quilted. I was about eight or nine years old, and I was allowed to quilt as well and certainly heard all the interesting gossip and stories that women tell when they quilt. I've often said they probably took my stitches out after I went to bed, but they did allow me to quilt. [laughs.] I have that quilt on my sewing room wall. It's an antique now. My other grandmother, my father's mother, was a quilter. She pieced quilts. She never did quilt them. She gave them to the lady that lived behind her and who quilted them for $3 a spool. Which usually came to around $9, and I have some of her quilts. Then I have quilts from the late 1800's that belonged to my stepmother's family. I received a quilt a few years ago from an aunt who had passed away. I called her grandson and said, 'If there were a lavender Dutch style quilt there, I would like to buy it from you.' He said, 'We haven't found that.' About 3 months later he called and said, 'You know we found that quilt in a garbage bag in the shed.' And he said, 'It's faded but it's a Dutch style quilt.' Well, I remember that being on my bed when I was a child and so that means it's almost seventy years old and of course it's faded but I think that was one of my reasons for love of lavender. The background of this lavender quilt with the Dutch dolls. So, I have that quilt now. He does not know the value of the quilt. There was the mother there and she said, 'You can have all of the old quilts.' Well one of them was a pieced quilt top that still had the newspaper on the back of it. The newspaper dates are 1935-34-36. I really don't quite know what to do with it. I don't want to take the paper off of it but it's too fragile to display so we just take it out and look at it every once in a while.

PS: Oh, how charming. Are there other quilters in your family now?

JM: My daughter-in-law is learning to quilt and enjoys it quite a bit. I had quilt camp from my grandchildren one year. We have seven grandchildren, and we take them to Florida every year for a week. I took sewing kits and my sewing machine, and we started making quilt blocks. They each got to make their own block. Then when we came back home of course they wanted to quilt some more, and I have three machines and I took them up to the sewing room. I have such a wonderful mental picture of this little 6-year-old boy sitting at the sewing machine with the foot petal on a box so that he could push it making his quilt square. Now those things have never been finished but it was a good start.

PS: They will be wonderful memories.

JM: Absolutely.

PS: How many hours a week do you quilt?

JM: Well, you see I'm primarily a wearables maker and I sew every day because I have what I call my day job which is making one-of-a-kind garments for individuals. Wedding outfits, gowns for special occasions and I also have a cliental of very socially prominent women in Dallas [Texas.] and I do alterations for them mainly on their designer clothes. I sew five days a week sometimes seven depending on what time of the year it is and how much work I have left. I've done three Fairfield garments and two Bernina garments. The beading on all of them sometimes takes a couple of months. I work on one of those pieces off and on for probably 3 or 4 months. I sew every day.

PS: Do you bead by machine or by hand?

JM: By hand. I love the hand work. I love the last Bernina showpiece I did. Has almost 3000 beads on the jacket alone which is wonderful therapy. I was recovering from my second bout with breast cancer last year and had rather extensive surgery. It was really great to have that piece to bead on. They say it's a wonderful connection between the heart and the hand and that you really put your heart into your work and it's very therapeutic. It certainly has been for me.

PS: I know that you don't do quilts that this is your only quilt that you've done right? At one point you did quilting, when did you switch to wearable art?

JM: In 1990 I had a piece in a fiber artist show in Dallas. One of my friends said come to Houston for the Stitch In Time fashion show on Sunday. I made my reservation to come and about six weeks before that trip I discovered a lump in my breast. I had to have surgery for breast cancer. I kept telling my doctor that I was going to Houston, and he kept telling me, 'You can go to Houston if you can get your arm up over your head and have the drains taken out.' I accomplished that. We took a coat out the day before I came down here. I had never seen a Fairfield Fashion show, I had never seen wearable art competitions, I had never seen the classes that we have here. That really piqued my interest, got me started. Of course, after seeing that show, the Fairfield show, that was suddenly my main desire in life was to design for Fairfield. Well, as you know, you have to be invited to design so I figured I'd better get myself busy and start teaching and getting in competitions so they would invite me to do that. When I got back to Dallas went back to see my doctor. They had gotten the pathology from the cancer, and he said, 'There's good news and bad news. The good news is that another six months we probably wouldn't have been able to save your life. The bad news is that you have to have chemo and radiation.' So, I started on those treatments, and I really didn't work during that time. But I did a coat, it's black and white. It's called "Chemo Therapy Therapy." It really did allow me to do some hand work during that time. I finished my treatment in May of the following year, and I made another coat, and I called it "Joy." [laughs.] Because I was through with my treatment. It's black with big flashy flowers on the shoulder. In 1995 which was my anniversary year, and they say five years after diagnosis without reoccurrence that you are cured. I made a coat called "In the Pink." I continued to come back to Houston every year. I entered the chemotherapy coat in the Stitch and Turn Breakfast the next year. I got a standing ovation which I think my daughter started. I said, 'I didn't know whether I won because it was really good or I got the sympathy vote, but I would take it either way.' In '95, when it was considered a cure, I made a piece called "In the Pink." It's pink crepe and it's quilted in silver thread. Its channel quilted every 3/8ths of an inch all over the jacket. It has roses and braid and beads and embellished. Made with a gray blouse and grey pants it is supposed to depict the bad time that I had gone through and the fact that pink was a celebration color. Karey Bresnahan was diagnosed the same year I was. So, the following year she asked me if I would write a story about my cancer coat, and they displayed it in a special exhibit down on the lower hall. There was a door next to the exhibit outside to a mobile mammogram unit. If I had not caught that cancer when I did, I probably wouldn't be here today. My cancer coats have been displayed at many, many places with the story. I always say the story is more important than the coats because it makes women stop and think if they have a lump maybe they better see about it right away. The pink coat was the first quilted one I did. I was here for the Fashion show competition and Mary Stori was one of the judges and she said, 'You need to enter the AQS show, and I said, 'Okay.' She said, 'Now listen to me. You need to enter into the AQS show.' I said, 'Okay, I will.' So, I did. I got it in late and it was accepted. What I didn't know was Mary Stori was going to be one of the judges in Paducah. Of course, it didn't do me any good. I didn't win anything, but I did get into that wonderful fashion show and Donna Wilder was there and she asked me to send in my credentials and photographs and things to be considered to design for Fairfield. So, I did that and the next year I was chosen to design for Fairfield. That's when I did this "Violets in Snow Piece" which is a long white cape.

PS: Would you like to get it out?

JM: Sure.

PS: And talk about it.

JM: You have to understand I was child in the 40's and all we did was go to the movies. I always wanted to be a designer. Didn't want to be a movie star. I wanted to be a designer. This design it was like it came to me all at one time. It wasn't something that evolved. I knew that I wanted to do this white cape with this simulated snowflake. It's quite dramatic as a presentation because the thousands of beads and silver stitching that I put on here really shows under the lights on the runway. I had to figure out a way to do snowflakes so I went to one of the craft stores to see how many kinds of snowflakes I could find. Ended up with some quarter sized snowflake sequins. So, I glued 600 of them on here and about a week later they begin to get brittle and break off. So, I had to take all of those off and everywhere I had put a snowflake I had to put a cluster or sequins and beads. That's one reason why it has so many beads on it is because it was a cover up for the spots. As I said it really is quite dramatic on the runway. The dress with the purple flowers and the green leaves. I actually used silk flowers. Artificial flowers and beaded on top of them and beaded on top of silk artificial leaves to do the bouquet of violets. As I said it's quite dramatic. The models usually turn their backs to audience open the cape and turn around. You have this white silk charmeuse dress with sequin violets and a spray that hangs from the waist that are double sided against this purple satin backdrop and it usually causes an "oh" and an "ah" and a little bit of excitement. It was really funny when I was beading on this, I would sit in my sewing room during the day and watch old movies. There was an old movie with Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney called "Holliday Inn" and they had on a cape just like this in red so I must have seen it in the movies in the 40's only their cape was red with white fur and mine is all white. This has traveled around with Fairfield. It's gone to a couple of European destinations as well with the Fairfield show I was invited in 2000 to do a fashion show in Turkey, an International Fashion Show and I was invited to be a guest of their country and so I had designers from Japan and Israel and Turkey of course and the United States and Denmark and Hungary and they sent all of their information about their garments to me and I wrote a commentary for it, sent it back to Turkey, they translated it into Turkish. When we all saw each other and actually saw the garments for the first time the day we presented the fashion show. It was in this beautiful old opera house. They had a string quartet before the show with all the gold carving and red velvet drapes. It was just beautiful. We had the fashion show. It came off without a hitch. I was concerned because many of the women didn't speak English so we divided them up in different rooms and put an English-speaking Turkish lady in with each one so that we could have a translator. It went off really well. This piece was the finale piece for the show. I had been given an envelope for a reception afterwards and I knew that the Minister of Culture was going to be there. We thought that we would take him a really special gift. We got him a white Stetson. So, at the end of the show when he gave me this big bouquet of red roses I said, 'Mr. Minister, "in our country all the good guys wear white hats."' And I gave him this hat and he said, 'Do you want me to put it on?' And I said, 'Only if you want to.' And so, he did put it on, and the flash bulbs just popped like crazy. On the front page of this newspaper in Ankona, Turkey that has 5 million people was on the front page. It said, 'Kowboy, K-O-W-B-O-Y in his cowboy hat.' That was really charming. I went to the reception, and everyone was extremely gracious to me. After I got home and looked at the envelope, I had been given I realized that the reception had been given in my honor and I didn't know that ahead of time. [laughs.] But it was a wonderful, wonderful experience.

PS: How does quilting impact your family?

JM: I'm blessed with the most wonderful family. I have a son and a daughter and my son's wife is like a daughter and we have seven grandchildren. They are all so interested in what I do and so excited that I travel and teach and that I have pictures of my garments in magazines and that they are shown different places. They are extremely supportive, and they are interested in every little detail although they don't really understand all of it, especially the boys, they are still interested in it. So, it's become a big part of our lives.

PS: I that you've said that quilting has helped you get through a difficult time. Is it the hand work or the machine work or the [inaudible.]?

JM: I think it's all of it together. I like to work in silence. I usually don't have on a radio or a TV. I like to just be quiet and use the gift that God gave me and really enjoy it. I do spend a lot of time doing hand work while my husband is watching television and I sit with him. Sometimes I'll watch and sometimes I'll just do hand work.

PS: What aspects of quilting do you not enjoy?

JM: I had a terrible time with this full-size quilt because I had it basted because I wasn't sure I would know how to baste it properly and apparently the corners of it stretched and I didn't realize that it stretched, and it could not be quilted. Well, it didn't. [laughs.] I had the whole star in the center quilted and the violets appliquéd there and the violets appliquéd on the corner and triangular pieces around the side and it was a mess. It was so rippled, and it just looked awful. I had to take all those pieces out and put them back in again. That's why it took me so long to finish the quilt. I guess that's going to be my sticky spot is trying to get the thing square.

PS: The next question was what do you think makes a great quilt but that's probably not a fair question.

JM: No, it really isn't.

PS: Really the best question would be what makes a great garment?

JM: I like elegance and simplicity of design. I like hand work that's done with special care. To me the finishing is extremely important. I have judged wearable competitions. I guess I've judged 3 in Paducah and 2 here in Houston. There are some marvelous garments over there. I'm sure you'll see that and wonder why I choose the one I did, but it is perfect. It is just the excellence of the design, the workmanship. I find that people that do wearable art tend to go over the top a lot. They put every technique they know into one garment. Or they just work it to death. My clothes are always very simple. To me that's very important that you use the skills and show the ability that you have to do beautiful hand work but it needs to be something that you could wear out of the house with your husband too.

PS: What makes it artistically powerful?

JM: I would say probably color, design, goes without saying. For me it's usually one defining embellishment or technique that's used really well. I don't like really overly quilted things. I think that comes from the fact that I've always worked in fashion rather than in quilting or in wearable art. I'm fascinated with art quilts and I think that's going to be my next direction is the little art quilts. I love anything that can be heavily embellished like I did this, but it still has to have the simplicity to it and that's hard to achieve in a garment. My piece for this fashion show was I think--there was 3 simple pieces in the show and mine was one of them. It was a turquoise jacket that had black lace around the neck and down the front of the jacket. It had a black velvet straight skirt. It was very simple. I do a lot of one color pieces. I think it's great impact in the textural part in working in one color.

PS: What makes a garment appropriate for a collection or museum?

JM: Well again it has it has to be as you would consider a quilt. It has to be perfectly executed and it has to have an appeal to it that would be universal to many people not just someone like me who's kind of a tourist when it comes to this. Some people who like all over designs.

PS: I really think we've probably covered some of the other things. How do great quilters learn the art of quilting and how to design. How did you learn?

JM: I taught myself. I have more books than the law allows. I'll actually say my husband allows me to have so many books. That has been my education. I read and I try to perfect. I've taken classes. Not a great many. I took some wearable art classes in the beginning and I always get really impatient because as I tell my students frequently many of us don't want to learn how to do something we want to know how to do something. So I don't like to spend the time in class. Just show it to me, tell me how you do it and let me go do it my way which is what I normally do. I think that's the way we each perfect our own style and our own ability is in doing it. Just practicing and making mistakes and having things taken out of shows. I've certainly had many people that were taken out because they just didn't do the criteria. But I learned from each one of those.

PS: How do you feel about machine work versus hand work?

JM: Well I do so admire the hand work of the traditional quilts. I'm just in awe of those tiny stitches and I don't think I could ever, ever do that. For one thing I'm too impatient. I want to use a long needle. Not a short needle. I'm sorry I forgot your question.

PS: I said we were talking about machine versus hand quilting.

JM: I think it takes a great deal or artistry to do a machine quilt and do it so well that it's admitted to one of these shows.

PS: Why is it important in your life that you do this?

JM: I've done two things really well. All I ever really wanted to do when I was a young girl was to get married and have a family and I picked the right man. We've been married almost 52 years and I have two wonderful children and a wonderful daughter in law and I always say perfect grandchildren. I was a very good mother and I've been a very good wife and the other thing is that I've always wanted to be a clothing designer. I did this work at home so I could stay home with my children. If I could have gone out into the world and worked I would have been a clothing designer. I still at 70 want to go to school and take design courses. Not because I don't know how to do it because when you're self taught you don't know what you know. You always wonder if there's more out there that you should know because what you've learned, you've learned on your own.

PS: In what ways in your case garments reflect your community?

JM: I think that's why my clothes are more simple and sophisticated than most because those are the kind of people I work for. The women I work for in Dallas are extremely wealthy. They buy absolutely gorgeous designer clothing. They are on boards and panels and charity balls and all those things. I have done their clothes for a very long time. My clothing designs are pieces they would understand and would wear. I have made many things for them. I think that's the reflection of the people that I have worked with and worked for.

PS: What do you think of the importance of quilts in American life? In your case it's got to be garments but it could be either.

JM: It's an expression of art so many of my pieces are commemorative pieces that have a story to go with them. I did a lecture yesterday and I brought about 30 garments and many of them I didn't make these thing just for samples I made these thing as an expression of myself. My love of my mother, my grandmother, my mother-in-law who really not necessarily taught me to sew but challenged me. My husband's mother was an excellent seamstress and I always wanted to impress her. That was part of my development was learning to try to impress her. There's so much more than just garments there is one that's called, "Ruby's Rambling Rose." My mother's middle name was Ruby and she loves roses and I had these red crystal tear drops that were on a broach she wore that I remembered from my childhood. That whole garment was made because there were 5 crystal tear drops that were my mothers and I wanted to do something with them.

PS: What do you think of about the importance of quilts in American life?

JM: You can't just say quilts to somebody that they don't say, 'Oh my grandmother or my aunt.' There are such wonderful memories of quilts in people's lives. Just like that story about that lavender Dutch Doll quilt when I was a child. I would have given any amount of money for that quilt. It meant that much to me. Although it's tattered and faded I wanted that quilt. It's just an expression of love of affection of talent and sometimes therapy, even if they are old and faded, you love them just the same.

PS: In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for Women's history?

JM: I heard such a touching story of a woman who grew up as a farm girl in Iowa and she had become a quilter and she said, 'I saw my first quilt at a State Fair and I said to my mother, 'Isn't that beautiful' and she said, 'Some darn fool went out and bought matching fabric and cut it up and made it into that quilt.'' And she said I knew that when I grew up I was going to go out and buy fabric and cut it up and make it into a darn quilt. It's just something that we can do to express ourselves that we can make and give to people with love. I just think they have an enormous impact on people's lives?

PS: How do you think quilts can be used?

JM: Well we don't sleep under any of our quilts at home. I have five quilts hanging on walls in different rooms. I have my mother's china cabinet; it has quilts displayed so that you can see them through the glass doors. I have a quilt as a table cloth next to my bed and a lace runner on top of it. I smile every time I see them. There's something about them that's so appealing to me that they make me happy.

PS: How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future?

JM: We need to better educate people about how to take care of older quilts. I don't do a really good job myself I know because I want them displayed. They would be better if they weren't exposed to the light and all of that. But there again to put them in a box and put them away or put them in the trunk it seems like that's not the right thing. I think it would be better to have memories of a quilt that faded away than to have it in a box in perfect condition.

PS: I know that you've made garments for people but what happens to the things you've made for friends and family? Do you make things for friends and family?

JM: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Wedding gowns. I think I've done 18 veils as wedding gifts because I do all kinds of sewing. Here's a pillow here's a purse here's a necklace, here's a garment. I do a lot of sewing. I used to sew for my husband and my son. I made their suits. I had to quit that because I found out all I was going to be doing was making their suits so I told them, 'No more.' [laughs.] I've done wedding gowns for my daughter and daughter in law and for my nieces. I have, I believe this God given talent and that if I'm going to continue to enjoy and have so much good from it than I need to give it back. I have made vestments for my church and alter cloths for my church. I've made Torah covers for a Jewish synagogue and I have done many things to give it away because I enjoy giving it away.

PS: Is there anything thing else I failed to ask you?

JM: I don't think so.

PS: Well, this has been a wonderful interview. A pleasure.

JM: Thank you.

PS: It is 11:10. Thank you very much.

JM: Thank you.

[tape ends.]


“Jo Ann Musso,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 27, 2024,