John Sauls




John Sauls




John Sauls


Joe Koval

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Schiffer Publishing


Houston, Texas


Judy Holley


Joe Koval (JK): This is Joe Koval. Today's date is November 2, 2002. It's 4:15 p.m., and I'm conducting an interview with John Sauls for the Quilters' Save Our Stories project at the Houston Quilt Festival. John, can you describe the quilt that you brought today?

John Sauls (JS): I guess the first thing I would say about it, it's a wreck. I've always felt like the quilts were people too, so you have to love them for what they are. And I found this quilt in New England probably twenty-five years ago at Brimfield. And at that time, it was in basically the same condition as you see it today. And I couldn't get past the condition and two months later when I came back to Brimfield, it haunted me and I went back to the people that had it and they said, 'No, we didn't bring it this time, but we still have it--[inaudible.] out of habit.' So, they said they'd bring it back to me in the fall which they did. And I've had it about twenty-five years and it just epitomizes the best of the Victorian era which is not necessarily my favorite in quilting but it's things that it says like, 'Whosoever will may come, abide with me, take this comfort, charity, joy, peace, faith, love, hope.' At first, I didn't really know what to bring and then I thought, 'Well, you know, really this is my favorite quilt. So, bring this one.' And unfortunately, it has fallen from grace, but I still love it and it still turns lots of heads. It's never really been on display anywhere and I've really never known what to do with it other than just love it like it is. Restoration would just be out of the question. And it had stars in it which I love, and it had Biblical verses, not necessarily verses, but I don't know really what else to say about it.

JK: What's it made out of, John?

JS: The background is linen or [addressing Judy Holley.] what did you call it, pearl cotton?

Judy Holley (JH): Pearl cotton.

JS: Pearl cotton. And then it's all satin stitch embroidered with really fine cotton, and it was embroidered onto the silk, but I would say ninety percent of the silk is gone. Unless you examine it closely you don't really realize that the silk is gone because the embroidery is so incredible on the pearl cotton. I just can't imagine what it looked like when it was born to still look this great after a hundred and twenty years. After I got it, I thought, 'What can I do to help this thing?' because it was just tattered and this is really something that's going to horrify the quilt world, but I thought, 'Well, maybe since the silk is so gone anyway, if I just run it through the washing machine and agitate it, all the rest of the stuff will go away.' Well, it didn't, and it looks just like it did before I washed it. [laughter.] I guess it did improve it in the sense it got it cleaned which probably will help preserve it for hopefully another hundred and twenty-five years. But the quilts that are my favorites--so many people in not only quilt collecting but every kind of collecting, people get so hung up on condition that they can't really look and see what something really has to say. And to me quilts are people and I have always been a people person. You can look at a quilt with a discerning eye after--especially as many years as we have looked at quilts and you can tell if the person was happy or if they were sad or if they were just a quilt factory turning out quilts. I've always said it's just as easy to make an ugly quilt as it is a pretty quilt.

[unidentified female speaker asks a question--inaudible.]

JS: Oh, this is actually not for sale. They're doing an interview and they asked us to bring our favorite quilts.

Judy Holley: Okay.

JS: And this is one of my favorite quilts and I've had it like twenty-five years. If you'll notice, all of the silk from here is totally gone.

JH: Yes, that's what I was looking at.

JS: But it's still so incredible.

JH: It's beautiful.

JS: Even in the condition that it's in, it still is fabulous.

JH: Right. Oh, yes, it is. It's priceless.

JS: Yeah, it's really a treasure. And I think, I can't remember now, I think at the time I thought the price was astronomical and it was probably $200 but it wasn't the price that stopped me. It was the condition because we were all looking for things that were absolutely perfect. And I just realized one day that they're not all perfect. I know one of my favorite pet peeves is somebody will come up and say, 'Oh, I just love this. I wish it were pink.' It isn't pink. It's green. It was born green and it's always gonna be green so don't make it something else. What else? Funny stories? What are we going to do here?

JK: How do you use the quilt?

JS: I actually don't. It stays stored away in a blanket chest and every so often when we're going through a move or whatever and I have to go through all my stuff. I open it up and say, 'Oh, yeah. I'm so glad I still have this.' And then I put it away and I've never exhibited it, I've never had it out of the house. It's always been put away and probably hasn't been shown to fifteen people in all the years that I've had it. I had some customer here on preview party night and she bought three quilts from me. And I was telling her about the Save Our Quilts story, and she said, 'Well, what did you bring?' and I said, 'Do you want to see it?' It just flipped her completely out, and she's really into condition, but she just thanked me for showing it to her. So, it's like an old friend. It just sort of says everything that should be said about what it takes to make a quilt, all those attributes you need to have to make a quilt: patience, hope, faith.

JK: John how did you get started in the quilt business?

JS: In the quilt business? Actually, I was setting up an antique market in Canton, Texas, and people were asking for quilts. And I would just sort of scratch my head and tell them, 'Quilts?' I was from a family of quilters. My grandmother quilted when I was a kid. I remember going to grandmother's house and the quilting frames were hanging from the ceiling. And I've got probably thirty quilts that my mother made as a young bride in 1929 and 1930. Plus, I was raised in an area of the state that for the last hundred years has been cotton farming, so there were quilts everywhere. So, I thought, 'Well, gosh,' so I started picking them up at all the sales I was going to. One day a light bulb went off and I thought, 'You know, if there are this many quilts on the surface, how many quilts are really here?' So, I started advertising in like a fifty-mile radius of where I lived that I bought antique quilts, and it was truly amazing. I was buying three and four hundred quilts a month. Of course, they didn't look like this. And that was from cutter quilts to the best that I could find. You couldn't get enough quilts. And then suddenly, books started being published on quilts and I'm thinking, 'Wait a minute. I've had thousands of quilts and I've never had any quilts like this.' And I would look at where they were from, and they were all from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut. And I thought, 'Go East, young man.' So that's actually what took me--and it's real interesting, as close as I live to the Midwest, I've never been into the Midwest looking for quilts. Because of the books with the pictures in them, I started going to New England, and hauled thousands of quilts out of New England for years, or through the years I will say, not a year but through the years. But the quilts that I was finding down here were more traditional things that you would find in the State of Texas. And I had by this time such a love of quilts and thought I had amassed a pretty good collection that when the books came out, I thought 'Huh.' So, I've gone to New England. And then, as you well know, you start peddling things to pay for what you're keeping, and then what you're keeping gets more expensive and more expensive, so you have to peddle more and it's just, it's like, 'Where do you get off this thing?'

JK: So, what do you think your first quilt memory was?

JS: The one thing that's always stood out as the first quilt, I'll never--I mean, I've been around quilts all my life. I'll never forget, at the time I didn't think anything about it, but years later I thought back. When I graduated from high school and I got ready to go to college my mom said, 'Here, don't you want to take a quilt with you?' And I went, 'Yuck. No.' And I didn't. And I guess that's the one thing that I --the first quilt memory--because before then they were just everywhere. I grew up with quilters and grandmother made us quilts. There just always were quilts. Like I say, 'They didn't look like these, but they were still quilts.' And today I still have all the quilts my mother made and quite frankly, I don't care a thing about them except the fact my mother made them because it's a Sunbonnet and an airplane and a Dutch Doll and a Grandmother's Flower Garden and you know, they're not my kind of quilts but my mother made them, so I've got them. Really some of the funny stories of the quilt thing through the years of buying and selling quilts are some of the most hysterical stories. One of my favorite stories is when I was advertising to buy quilts and I was kidding that I would make house calls. And you'd go to look at seven quilts and you'd drive thirty-five miles, and you'd get there, and you'd come home with two wardrobes and twelve pieces of cut glass and a set of Sterling silver, and the quilts were horrible, but you got all this other stuff. But I'll never forget I got this call to go to Mt. Vernon, Texas, which is about an hour--from where I was living then, about an hour-and-a-half away. And I got there, the lady had seven quilts and they were just awful, but yet they were saleable at the right price, but they were awful. And so, she didn't know what she wanted for them and by the time that we had talked for three hours, I thought, 'I've got to get this deal over with.' So, I said, 'How much do you want for these quilts?' And she said, 'You tell me.' And I said, 'Okay.' I said, 'I'll offer you --' and bear in mind this was twenty, probably twenty-five years ago, I said, 'Okay, I'll give you two-and-a-half for the seven of them.' And all of a sudden, smoke just came out of her ears and she just – her hackles went up and I could just feel it. And I was just scratching my head, and she said, 'Oh, well, I wouldn't take that.' And I thought, 'Well, I'll just change the subject here for a little bit and come back and let her calm down.' So, we talked about her cattle and her whatever, and I'm thinking, 'I've gotta make this deal work. I've gotta get out of here. I've got a whole day wasted in this trip, and these quilts are nothing, I'm going home with nothing. I've gotta get out of this lady's house.' And I said, 'Okay, I've gotta go.' I said, 'Obviously, you have some idea of what you want for these quilts because you know what you don't want for them.' And she looked at me and she said, 'Well, I wouldn't take less than ten dollars apiece for them.' And I sat there for a minute and scratched my head and I said, 'Ma'am, I just offered you $250 for these quilts.' 'What? Would you give three?' And I thought, 'Keep your mouth shut and buy them for seventy bucks.' But she was one of these old people like it doesn't matter what the offer is, you up it a little bit. And I had offered her two-and-a-half for the seven she thought I was offering two dollars and fifty cents for the quilts. And then I was one of the last persons to get an answering machine. I just never thought I needed one. Well, I was running – now another story about an answering machine. One day I got up and the phone rang and since you're not from East Texas, you don't know how they speak in East Texas. So I'm going to refer to my raising here. So, I--'Hello?' 'Yeah, could I speak to your wife?' [imitating dialect.] And I go, 'I'm not married.' They said, 'Oh. Well, could I speak to that woman's wanting to buy those quilts?' And I said, 'Ma'am, that's me.' She said, 'Huh?' I said, 'I am the person wanting to buy the quilts. I'm the person running the ad to buy the quilts.' 'Huh. Well, I never thought about no man buying no quilts.' Clunk. Never heard another word from her. Flipped her out. [laughter.]

JK: John, have you ever used quilts to get through a difficult time?

JS: Oh, absolutely. As a matter of fact, in 1984, my business burned to the ground. I was living in Commerce, Texas, and my business, 4200 square feet, literally burned to the ground. There was nothing left. And I, at that time, had probably 250 quilts stashed away, and I had to go through and cash some of them in to get back on the road again. At that time, I had an antique store with a general line, but the quilts had become, through the last six or seven years, had evolved until it was the biggest cash producer of the business. So, with the connections I had made in my travels to the East Coast, the easiest, quickest way for me to get back on the road was to go back to New England and buy quilts. And then I sort of changed my business. For about seven years I dealt almost exclusively in quilts because I could box them up and I could ship them UPS and I could fly to New York or fly to San Francisco or fly to Nashville. So, yeah, it got me through a real difficult time.

JK: What do you like about the quilt business?

JS: The people. Because if you like all different types of people, you're gonna like all different types of quilts because that's where the quilts came from, all different types of people. I know I had two kids working for me this time, for the first time. They'd never been around me and my business and quilts, and they go, 'Yeah, this is ugly. This one's ugly. Take that ugly one down.' And I'm thinking, 'Just wait. You'll see.' And I have made a believer out of them because beauty is in the eye of the beholder and you have to--I think it goes into the case of any business, the more tuned in you are to people, the more tuned in you are to what they like and [inaudible.]. Quilts just are people. I always say, 'Quilts are people, too.'

JK: What do you dislike about the business?

JS: Oh. [pause: 5 seconds.] I dislike mainly the commercialism of the Chinese quilts and what it's done to the – I guess there are those of us like you and I who came up through the ranks and have seen what it has done to our business. I resent that but at the same time, I have to say, well it's the way our system works, and you just have to go with the flow, and you can't do anything about it. You just kind of have to adapt to it and move on. But as far as the quilts, there's not really anything that I don't like about it. There are people I'd like to strangle because the last block they put in a quilt didn't match but they might have had a bad day. [laughter.] Without being there, you can't really know.

JK: What do you collect yourself, in quilts?

JS: Quilts? There's not really--I just collect things that I like. And through the years, I guess I would have to say that I would turn loose of what would be perceived as my best quilts and kept the ones that were special to me because of who I got them from or how I found them or the story behind them. I think if I were to die tomorrow and they would have a quilt auction, I think the world would be a little shocked at the fact that I didn't have a stack twelve feet deep. But to me, the thing that's priceless is getting to own them, getting to handle them, to learn what each quilt has to tell you, and it's the knowledge of having known so many and studying each quilt. One of the things I really love doing better than anything is washing them, to bring them back to life. Because after they're packed away for sixty years and they're flat it's like a resurrection. And by the time you have done that and carefully handled them and brought them back to life, you have learned something from that quilt and what it has to say and who made it and how meticulous the maker was or how lackadaisical the maker was. And those don't seem to sell too well. [laughter.]

JK: Is there any one quilt that you wish you had back?

JS: Boy, that's a tough one. No, I don't think so, because I've learned something from every one of them and [brief pause: answers a customer's question] there was a time probably when I'd regret selling a quilt, but I can truthfully say that now – the interesting thing is you never forget one of your quilts. Another thing that those of us that have been in the business for so long, it's kind of an eye opener a few years back, is many years ago I was selling quilts to people for their children. Now their children are coming to me, buying quilts for their children. So that was sort of an eye opener. But I can't really think of any quilt that I've really--but I'm that way about anything. Once I turn loose of it, it's gone. You can't control the past. You only have control of the future. The past will destroy you. And that comes from having some tragedies in my life and observing what it did to other people around me. So, you just have to let go. And it's just stuff, you know, it's all just stuff.

JK: Throughout your career in the quilt business, who do you think has influenced you the most?

JS: Golly, you didn't tell me there were going to be hard questions. [laughter.] Who's influenced me the most? [pause: 10 seconds.] I'm going to have to say probably myself. It was something that I sort of stumbled into on my own and immediately bonded with it and was the first person in the State of Texas, especially male, that bought and sold quilts. "Mr. Quilt," you know. And then I finally started going to the East Coast and discovered that, you know, 'Other people do this. It's okay. It's okay you can do this if you want to.' I guess probably myself. I just went after it. It was just something that I did, and it fit. And I've always been a color person, and another thing about quilts is they're so visual. One of my favorite expressions that I've always told my friends is, 'Don't ever give me a book with no pictures in it because you'll be wasting your money. I've gotta have pictures.' And I'll never forget--I have to quote someone that we all know and one of the colorful people in the quilt folk art world is Gene Rappaport. When I used to set up at Heart of Country, I couldn't wait until Gene got there because if Gene wanted to get rid of something, it was going away. But he's such a wild man that he would come in and throw all these quilts down and I'd say, 'How much is this one?' and he'd say, 'Show me the picture. Show me the picture.' Which meant, 'Hold it up,' because he didn't have a clue which quilt you were asking about. He had to see the picture of it. Have you ever heard him say that?

JK: Yes, I have.

JS: 'Show me the picture, show me the picture.' But all these people – it was sort of strange how all of us like you and Mary and Sandra Mitchell and Michael Council and myself and many others--Shelly Zegart. We all sort of evolved not knowing the other person. It's not like I felt like I ever--I just felt like I was doing what I was supposed to be doing and I could only do it as good as I could do it. It didn't matter what other people had, if they had--I will never forget when I first started going to Brimfield and you'd go into all those booths, and they would have twenty-five red and white ones and twenty-five green and white ones and twenty-five blue and white ones. I thought, 'Where did they get these things?' But I guess I'm just as big as Gene was. I don't know if that's good or bad.

JK: What do you think makes a great quilt?

JS: A great quilt? A great quilt is a combination of everything. It's a combination of perception, skills, and abilities of the piece to pull together the quilt. It takes a great eye to make a great quilt. Color coordination, scale, different [inaudible.].

JK: What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection?

JS: Well, that's one where I'm probably not going to give the right answer. It seems to be what makes them appropriate is condition and unusual-- I think there are a lot of quilts that are worthy of museums that don't make it to museum collections because people can't get past condition but if you look at all the great collections, you don't find ragtags in any of them. So that would make it tilt. [laughter.]

JK: What makes a great quilt dealer?

JS: A great quilt dealer? Integrity, honesty, love of the product that they're selling, knowledge of what they're selling, and love of people. You've got to love people to have the patience to go through some of the things we go through to continue. And you've got to be a good merchandiser, not only--interruption: conversation with others outside interview.]

JK: Someone starting out in the quilt business today, what advice would you give them?

JS: [pause: 10 seconds.] Be cautious. Study the product before you jump in too deep. Always know that the market is always changing. The good things are always good, but other things--what's "in" one year, it's just like any other thing, the market always changes. What people are looking for this year, they're not looking for next year. Just because you've got the very best green and white appliqué on the floor doesn't mean you're going to sell it because they're not looking for it this year.

JK: How do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting?

JS: That's an obstacle I had to get over several years ago. I used to turn my nose up at machine quilted things. And then I realized that, hey, this is still a quilt, and the graphics are just as good as if it were hand quilted, and it is a pretty thing to look at. And admit that it became a commodity that I could sell for less money, and I would refer to them as 'the look for less.' Hanging on a wall of the Country Living Magazine, you couldn't tell the difference because the graphics were great. And it also gave me a product line – and this was before the years of the Chinese and Indian made quilts – it gave me the ability to offer someone a quilt that they could actually use that really had the look and not worry about it because it's going to be very durable, for a lot less money. And my first introduction to machine quilting were quilts that came out in the Midwest, came from Nebraska, or this part of the country. I never saw a machine quilted Texas quilt, per se, but out of Kansas and Nebraska and Iowa, they would come down. And it seemed that they were mostly done in the '20s, '30s and '40s. And I mean they were some 'drop dead gorgeous' things. And people would say, 'Well, they ruined this top,' and I thought, 'Well, maybe they did, but because they did, this child is going to have a quilt to take to college that's not $1200.' So, this is something I've had to work through. It's the same thing as what I said earlier, 'Oh, I wish this weren't green,' or 'I wish this weren't machine quilted.' Well, it is, get over it.

JK: John, why is quilting important to your life?

JS: [pause: interruption from customer.] Well, it's taken up thirty-five years of it. It's provided me with a nice living. But more importantly, it's provided me with an incredible number of wonderful experiences, some comical, some frustrating, some humorous. But what I really need to do is write a book about all of the experiences of the quilt business. This is a bit off color but I'm going to tell you all this story and you can edit it. The first time that I did the Mancuso shows in San Francisco and Burlingame, I'd never been out there before to do a show, and this very scholarly looking "earth person" walked into my booth and introduced himself and said, 'I just recently bought a quilt I'd like you to look at.' And I said, 'Great.' He said, 'It's not for sale. It's an Amish quilt that I bought for my collection and I'd just like your opinion of it.' 'Great, no problem.' And we opened it up and we're looking at the quilt but, of course, I've already scanned the whole thing, and I said, 'This looks like a Holmes County, Ohio,' and he said, 'Well, that's what it was sold to me for.' Never commented on them or anything. She just very matter of factly said, 'Can you see these spots right here? Don't you think that's sperm?' And I looked up thinking she was trying to just pull a fast one and she was serious as a heart attack. And I said, 'Well, okay, lady, well actually, in Texas, we call it passion.' [laughter.] [inaudible.] Just another one of those funny stories. But she was just serious as she could be. So, next question?

JK: How do you think quilts can be used?

JS: How can they be used? Gosh, thousands of ways. It's hard – decorating a home [inaudible.]. You can fold them, you can stack them, you can hang them, you can drape them, put them on beds, or you can just put them in a blanket chest. It really saddens me to see them abused because they could be used without being abused, as you well know with the fabulous Broderie Perse that you have. I sold a quilt, and it was mint and then suddenly it wasn't. You sell something like that to a doctor's wife and you assume that they'll take care of it. I sold an incredible Broderie Perse quilt to a doctor's wife several years ago, and eight or ten years later she was tired of it, and she wanted me to sell it for her. And I got real excited just to get a chance to get one of those back that was just incredible. Well, it came back, and it was just ravaged. I mean it was just absolutely ravaged. I wondered what it would take, a quilt of that magnitude, to do that to it. I was still able to sell it [inaudible.].

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

JS: This is another thing where I sort of have a different approach than a lot of others, especially the East Coast collector mentality. To me, preservation is a different thing because if they're a hundred--even if they're fifty years old, you'd be amazed at how dirty they can be. They could be absolutely what appears to be spotlessly clean, out of the cleanest, finest homes, but the fact that they've been stored for seventy or a hundred years--[inaudible.] I'm an advocate of getting them clean when necessary. Of course, you can't wash all quilts, and you know that there are quilts that can be washed that are from the '30s and '40s that are still strong that can be, that need to be. To me, that's the preservation, and I'm sure there are people who would disagree with me and that's fine.

JK: John, I think we've covered a lot of ground, and is there anything that I haven't asked you that you might want to talk about as far as quilting goes?

JS: Maybe we should have done this early in the morning. [laughter.] I requested that. Of course, I requested it six weeks late.

JK: I'd like to thank John Sauls for allowing me to interview him today as part of the 2002 Quilters' Save Our Stories Project. Our interview concludes at 4:55, November 2nd, 2002.


“John Sauls,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024,