Jannett Caldwell




Jannett Caldwell




Jannett Caldwell


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Mary Persyn


Avondale, Pennsylvania


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave. I'm doing a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Jannett Caldwell. She is in Avondale, Pennsylvania and I'm in Naperville, Illinois, so we are doing this interview by telephone. Today's date is February 15, 2008. It is 4:22 in the afternoon, and we are doing a special Alzheimer's Forgetting Piece by Piece Q.S.O.S., which relates to Jannett's quilt, "Losing My Mind a Piece at a Time." Jannett thank you for doing this interview and tell me about your quilt.

Jannett Caldwell (JC): I had heard about the quilt contest around May of 2006, it was only a few weeks before the deadline to send in your pictures. My daughter Sandra found Ami's web site. She is a new quilter. I have three daughters and none of them quilt or sew, but she had just gotten the bug and I was happy about that. I knew Ami from the first quilt show I ever attended. Ami 's [Simms.]"Picture Play Quilts" was the first quilt lecture I ever heard. I was just awed that somebody could make a living talking about quilts. Anyway, my daughter found the website and she printed out the rules. She knew I would want to make this quilt, because Mom had been diagnosed in March of 2006. I had seen a picture of an old quilt in Gerald Roy's column in Fon's & Porter's magazine. That old quilt inspired the upper portion of my quilt. My thought was to make the quilt reflect my Mom's life; the upper blocks to depict her early life. She lived in the mountains of North Carolina when she was young. She had a very happy childhood. A couple of years ago she started telling me the stories of our family. She just loved that I was finally listening to her. She would tell me stories about her early life, how happy she was. I tried to make it show her mind as the years pass. Here and there, just empty spots and then the falling apart of the mind and the crying eyes--my mom is not a crier but it just seemed appropriate. I know I felt like crying the whole time and I'm sure she does too because she realizes what it means to have Alzheimer's. Her mother had Alzheimer's and also her sister had early Alzheimer's. My Aunt had Alzheimer's when she was only forty-nine and she lived to be sixty. My mom saw her sister go through Alzheimer's so when the diagnosis came through it was hard for my mom. She was eighty-two and she thought she had gotten away without having it. Anyway, that is what my quilt is trying to show how Alzheimer's will affect her life. The quilt went together easy. I just couldn't believe how it just made itself really. I just knew what I had to do and it came about. When I got ready to take my pictures I went back to the website and read the rules again and I found that my quilt was four inches too wide. Now it was completely finished, it was like the day before I had to have the pictures posted. I got out my rotary cutter. I cut two inches off one side, two inches off the other. I sent my pictures in and it was accepted. I don't know [laughs.] I was shocked. I knew I had to make a quilt, but I never expected truly to be chosen to be in this exhibition.

KM: What are you plans for the quilt when you get it back?

JC: Well it is Ami's as long as she needs it, as long as she wants it. My thought, I assumed that eventually there would be an auction. This is just my thought, nobody ever said this to me, but I always thought that maybe there would be an auction of these quilts to get more money for Alzheimer's research. If that doesn't happen, it will be a family quilt, passed along in the family.

KM: Have you seen the exhibition?

JC: Yes, yes I saw it the first time in Harrisburg in September of 2006. We live about fifty miles away so my friend and I went up and we spent the weekend at the Harrisburg Quilt Show.

KM: Tell me your thoughts on the exhibition.

JC: It is a hard exhibition to look at, especially when you have somebody who has Alzheimer's, but also it gives you hope that every little bit helps, bringing awareness of the disease. I know when my aunt had Alzheimer's she had it back in the seventies and nobody even knew what she had. There was no help for her family; they didn't know what was happening to her. In that respect, I'm glad that since mom had to have Alzheimer's she has it now and not back then.

KM: It is sad. Tell me about your interest in quilting.

JC: I made my first quilt in 1971 [laughs.] when my nephew was born. I didn't know how to make a quilt I just kind of fuddled through. My grandmother had made quilts, but she by this point had died from Alzheimer's so she couldn't help me. My mom was like my daughters, she never cared about quilting so she never actually learned so I just kind of fuddled through and made him a quilt. I had made his mom's maternity dresses so I used the leftover fabric to make his baby quilt. That was a special quilt to me and I thought it was long gone. After my quilt was in this exhibition I guess the family thought maybe I was doing something that somebody might care about. [laughs.] That quilt was located. It was just a joy to see that he had used it when he was a baby. It was still holding together even though I didn't know what I was doing.

KM: Do you have quiltmakers in your family?

JC: Like I say, my grandmother she made quilts, she made quilts because she lived in North Carolina in a little cabin, and that is what they did. They had to make quilts to keep warm.

KM: Were you aware that she was a quiltmaker?

JC: Yes. We would go south when I was little and the loft had several beds where all the kids were sent to sleep and her quilts would be on the beds. I would try to figure out how she made the different blocks. I remember my aunt and my mom talking about the fabric being from a special dress that they wore to a special place and who was there. The fabrics in those quilts brought back memories.

KM: Your mom didn't quilt?

JC: Not really. [laughs.] She made a couple, you know where you take a page from a magazine and you sew fabric to it. She did a couple like that, but truly never was much of a sewing person.

KM: Do you belong to any art or quilt groups?

JC: I do. I belong to several, since 2000. Before 2000 I made quilts almost every year. I would make a quilt for somebody's baby, weddings, and family things. In the year 2000 was the first time I ever went to a quilt show. I didn't know there was a whole quilting community out there. I did have a lady who taught me how to hand piece, around 1980. She was a member of a guild in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She was my boss' mother, Irene Langelier. She would come to visit and she said you really need to get into a guild. I had young kids, and I didn't have time to do that. In 2000 my children--I have grandchildren, they were all gone and I had time to do the guild and the quilt shows. My time was my own so I could do whatever I wanted. Was that the question? [laughs.]

KM: Yea. That was fine, you are doing good. What type of quilts do you like?

JC: I love every kind of quilt. I love the old beautiful hand made before 1860's, the Baltimore Albums, I love those, I love the quilts of Gee's Bend that the ladies used what they had and made quilts. There is not any kind of quilt that I don't like. Quilt history is more important to me than my own quilts. I do belong the Ladybugs. It is a Delaware quilt guild.

KM: They have been documented for Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories. Some of the Ladybugs have been.

JC: I do belong to the Ladybugs.

KM: Yes, they have been documented. I think some of them have been interviewed too.

JC: They have, I didn't join until I think it was 2003. Something was wrong with the system. They have been trying to get someone to volunteer to do S.O.S. so not all have been documented.

KM: No not nearly, but I do remember the Ladybugs, so when you said that it kind of made that click. Have your worked for the quilt documentation project?

JC: Yes. [laughs.] I am not a member of The Alliance [The Alliance for American Quilts.] but I have helped with the Delaware Quilt Project since it started.

KM: That's okay. I thought that I remembered that you helped with the Delaware Quilt Documentation Project.

JC: Yes, I still help with that. We have another documentation coming up on June 7. I'm looking forward to it.

KM: Very good. Describe where you sew.

JC: Describe my sewing room?

KM: Yes, in a studio or sewing room?

JC: It is a sewing room. We have two small bedrooms upstairs and one of them is my sewing room. I call it a studio, but it is truly just a small sewing room.

KM: That is quite alright.

JC: It is jammed pack with all my stuff and I've got lots of stuff. [laughs.]

KM: Don't we all? How many hours a week do you quilt?

JC: Until December of last year I was a nurse aide for a retirement community. My mom is still able to live alone, but I want to be free when she needs me. You just don't know when you are going to be needed. I have been sewing a lot more. I sew at least a couple of hours a day and sometimes if I've got a project going on I will sew all day and into the evening. [laughs.]

KM: What are your favorite techniques and materials?

JC: There is always something new. There is somebody coming to give a talk at the guild and I say, oh I've got to try that. [laughs.] My quilts are original. I usually try to take traditional blocks and use them somehow in a new way.

KM: Does your quilt have appliqué on it? Are the eyes, the teardrops and the hankie?

JC: Yes the eyes.

KM: Are those hand or machine appliquéd?

JC: I believe they are machine. I believe I did all machine on that, except for the hankie, I think maybe I did sew those down by hand. It has been a while.

KM: Isn't that funny how quickly we forget.

JC: [laughs.] I know, on to the next one.

KM: Yes exactly. Do you prefer machine appliqué to hand appliqué?

JC: I find that I have been doing more machine work, only because it is faster. I truly enjoy doing by hand, but I want to get things finished.

KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out?

JC: Join a guild. [laughs.] For sure join a guild. The speakers are just fantastic and the guild will know the dates and locations of all the quilts shows and exhibits. If you are interested in quilt history, they are always looking for volunteers at documentations.

KM: What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?

JC: I think we are trying to do it too fast. Like I say, I know I am. Like I said I like to do hand work but I want to get it finished, so I am turning more to my machine and I hope that we don't lose the hand skills in doing that, and the commercialization. There are so many things you can buy for quilting. I know when I first started you couldn't find anything. I was one of the first people to own a rotary cutter. I ordered from a magazine. Nobody knew what it was. I had to tell everybody that I knew about the rotary cutter.

KM: I would think that would probably be one of the best innovations that had ever happened for quiltmaking.

JC: I agree.
KM: I have to think, besides the sewing machine, I think the rotary cutter would probably be next in line. Why is quilting important to you?

JC: It is just a part of my life. I use it for family things. It is a way to give a gift that is more than just something you bought at the store. I like to use clothing in my quilts to make it special.

KM: What does your family think of your quiltmaking? You said that the exhibit changed their minds.

JC: [laughs.] They thought maybe I was doing something special. My daughter Sandra, she is the one who has been bitten by the quilt bug--it is wonderful to have her share my quilting.

KM: Is she close by?

JC: Yes, all my daughters are close by. We all live, well my two daughters live here close to me and my other daughter just lives like a mile down the road. It is wonderful.

KM: Do you work with your daughter at all, do you collaborate?

JC: Yes, we have worked on a couple of things together. The soldier quilt, we made a Home of the Brave quilt, it was for a Delaware family who had lost a soldier in the Iraq/Afghanistan
War and we worked on a couple of other things. We have taken classes together and that is fun. We are going on a retreat. I have never been on a retreat and we are going on our first quilt retreat.

KM: You will love it.

JC: That is what everybody says. [laughs.]

KM: I love quilt retreats.

JC: [laughs.] We are looking forward to it.

KM: Where are you going?

JC: Lancaster.

KM: Very nice.

JC: We are close to Lancaster. We do frequent trips up there to buy fabric.

KM: Is there any aspect of making a quilt that you don't enjoy?

JC: I'm sure there is, at the moment I can't think of it. Well I guess I don't like having to make the sandwich. You know when you have to put it together. I don't like that.

KM: I think most of us don't.

JC: Right. [laughs.]

KM: What was it like whacking off your quilt?

JC: [laughs.]

KM: Were you worried or all making it fit the size requirements?

JC: Nope.

KM: Looking at it you would not.

JC: I looked at the picture the other night and it would look better if it had two inches on those side borders. I had to give a talk at the guild and I took my strips, my side strips to show them what I had done.

KM: Does Ami know you whacked off the sides to make it fit?

JC: No.

KM: She will know now. [JC laughs.] She will know now. How was it doing the CD, having to, since there is an audio component?

JC: Yes. I wanted to make sure I told you this story too, because in my quilt, like I say the blocks are supposed to depict my mom's life and in the very top blocks the circles are made of feed sacks, that is actual feed sack fabric in circles up there and I said in the paper I sent to Ami.

KM: Your artist statement.

JC: Yes, that was it. I said that represented my mom's early life. Her mother used to make her dresses from feed sacks. Well don't you know after my quilt had been accepted, so I had already given that statement to Ami. And one day my mom says to me, 'You know my mom never did make any clothes for us.' I said, 'Oh Mom I thought she made you clothes out of feed sacks when you were young.' 'Oh no, no, no, she would never have made us clothes out of feed sacks.' She said, 'One time she made us slips out of feed sacks, but she would never have made us clothes out of feed sacks. She didn't sew our clothes anyway, my aunt sewed them.' [laughs.]

KM: Oh no.

JC: So I did tell Ami that and it is not on the CD. I know she did take it out because it wasn't true. I didn't care that she took it out, and I should have said to mom, 'Did your mom make your clothes?' I just assumed it. It was 1930's and I know that they were very poor. They had been more well to do when mom was born, but as the thirties came on they lost their place and had hard times, so I just assumed her clothes were made out of feed sacks, but they ordered the fabric from a catalogue.

KM: How was the experience of actually having to call into Ami and read your little statement?

JC: That was the hardest thing I ever did. I kept, you just choke up.

KM: That was my experience. She would email me and say, again. [laughs.]

JC: [laughs.] I know, it was hard.

KM: I think it is an interesting experience, and I think it is interesting for people to actually hear us read our statements.

JC: I think so too. It took me a long time to listen to everybody's. I did, I listened to everybody's but it would be, well that was enough of that for now. [laughs.] You would go back to it. It is hard to listen to, but I think it is something you have to do.

KM: Have you participated in the priority quilts?

JC: Yes. I made seven Sunbonnet Sue's.

KM: Tell me about them.

JC: A friend gave me twenty-eight vintages Sunbonnet Sues. She had bought them at a yard sale. She had bought fifty some of these. I think they were from some little girl's dresses because each dress fabric is different. She gave me half of what she bought; she only paid about a dollar for all of them. The quitter had pinned together - the bonnet, shoes, hands and the arms. They had been pinned together so long the pins were rusted. Each piece had been turned under and sewn with matching thread. I used some of those to make my Alzheimer's Priority Quilts. I have made seven of those so far.

KM: How have they done?

JC: They have sold for $40.00 each, so that is wonderful.

KM: Very nice. All the money goes to Alzheimer's research which is also a pretty incredible thing.

JC: It makes you feel like you are doing just a little something. It is fun to use something like that. You know this lady must have died before she got the quilt made, and I like knowing that I'm passing along a little piece of something she did.

KM: Do you worry about getting Alzheimer's?

JC: I just assume I'm going to.

KM: Oh interesting.

JC: [laughs.] I've got my grandmother, and probably it was in the family before that, we just don't know about it. I do know that my grandmother's brother had it, she had it, and like I said my aunt had early onset Alzheimer's. I'm hoping I will be like my mom and not get it until I'm eighty, but you never know, you just don't know.

KM: We could be hit by a car tomorrow.

JC: That is true.

KM: So you might as well live life.

JC: That is right.

KM: Let's go on for a little big picture of the function and meaning of quilts and why do you think quilts are important in the United States? How do you think they are important? You have done a lot of documentation.

JC: It is a way--it is historical. That is not the right word but it brings your family, if you have family quilts, it brings them together. It is a part of the person who made that quilt from a long time ago, even if you don't know, like the Sun Bonnet Sues. I don't know that lady. I have no idea who made those Sun Bonnet Sues, but it is like a part of her I'm carrying on. That little quilt, whoever bought that little quilt, may pass that on. You don't know that they will, but they might. [laughs.]

KM: Has your mom seen "Losing My Mind a Piece at A time"?

JC: No. I purposely have not shared it with her, When mom was given the diagnosis Alzheimer's, it really upset her. She doesn't like knowing she has Alzheimer's. She tells people that she is just getting old and old people can't remember things. That is true. [laughs.] So I knew if I told her I had made a quilt about her Alzheimer's it might hurt her in some way that I don't understand. She would be happy that I had a quilt in a show. She loves my quilting, my quilts and all that, but the fact that it is connected with her Alzheimer's and at this point, it's just not something I want to share with her. I don't know how to say it, I may be completely wrong but I don't want to take the chance. [laughs.]

KM: I can understand.

JC: I just don't want to bring it up.

KM: If it upsets her, I certainly wouldn't think that it would be a good idea to share it with her.

JC: No. It's not needed. I will show her my quilts I make for something else and she will be happy about that and but not the Alzheimer's, it is just too hard for me to tell her I made this quilt for her because she has Alzheimer's. That's all I have to say about that.

KM: What do you think makes a quilt artistically powerful?

JC: You really don't know until you see them. The first quilt show I ever entered was in the late eighties, it was Family Circle "Childhood Memories." My quilt didn't even make a place. [laughs.] Anyway I got the book out and I'm looking at these quilts that were in that exhibition and they are just fabulous. I don't know what it is, but each one of them. When I saw this magazine, saw the quilts that had won, I thought 'well no wonder I didn't win.' These quilts are just fabulous and I don't know what it is, you just know when you see it you just know it. It just grabs you.

KM: Are there any quilts in the exhibition that you are drawn to?

JC: I'm drawn to most of them. [laughs.] Almost all of them really just take my breath away. All that is behind them and you can see the connection. Almost from a distance you can see the connection. [long pause.]

KM: I had a tough time getting through the exhibit the first time. [Just it is a tough exhibit to go through, but they are wonderful quilts and they are a good variety of quilts.

JC: It must have been hard to pick. I don't know. Did just Ami pick them?

KM: Yes, just Ami.

JC: Just Ami picked them.

KM: Just Ami picked them, she was the only one.

JC: That must have been tough, I just can't image.

KM: No I can't. I would think that would be. As tough enough as it is to go through the exhibition, can you image having to go through all of the entries and decide which ones?

JC: And listen to the CDs. Think about That must have been. She said it was.

KM: Yea, she did.

JC: She did send out an email saying how hard it was. She did it.

KM: It is pretty amazing too.

JC: It certainly is. She really has brought me to a new understanding of quilting, it has been great. Things that I thought I could never do, like talk to the ladies at the guild, I thought I would never stand up there and talk to them, well I did. [laughs.].

KM: What did you talk to them about?

JC: The Alzheimer's Priority Quilts. I wanted the guild to be involved in priority quilts.

KM: Are they going to get involved?

JC: Well I just did my talk last Monday night, so we will see. I told them I would be collecting after the next four meetings. I am really anxious to see how many do make an Alzheimer's Priority Quilt.

KM: How many people are in the guild?

JC: We just got a new figure. I believe there is one hundred and thirty or more. It is a pretty good size guild.

KM: I hope they do Priority Quilts. We talked about rotary cutters and sewing machines, has advances in technology influenced your work? You said you like to try new things.

JC: I do. I do and I don't know that it has really other than my machine is so much nicer than the ones that I used to have.

KM: What kind of machine do you have?

JC: I have a Bernina, the Quilter's Edition. [laughs.] Other than that, I still do, I do more machine work. I like that, my older quilts I always hand quilted them, even though my hand quilting really wasn't all that great. It had big, big stitches, but they were all even so I thought that was okay. [laughs.] I usually do my quilting with my Bernina now. The last quilt top I made was a Quilt of Valor for an American soldier who was wounded in Iraq. Longarm quilter's quilt most of the Quilts of Valor. Sue Moats quilted mine and she just made it so special. It was the first quilt of mine to be quilted by someone else and it was so wonderful, why did I ever bother, just send them away.

KM: You have no problem with other people quilting your quilt?

JC: Not that one. She did such a gorgeous job and she wrote across the bottom, she wrote "thank you for your service." It was just fantastic.

KM: Is making quilts for causes something that is important to you?

JC: Yes. One of the reasons I made the Quilts of Valor and the "Home of the Brave" quilt, I just want people to make quilts for Alzheimer's, so I thought if maybe I do what they are doing.

KM: They will do for you.

JC: I love making quilts anyway so why not make them for a cause. How many can you have for yourself I mean.

KM: Do you have lots of quilts?

JC: No. [laughs.] I gave them all away.

KM: Oh you gave them all away. Do you sleep under a quilt?

JC: No. Well now, we have a house in North Carolina and we do sleep under quilts there. I have an old ragged quilt I snuggle up with when I'm watching TV, but I don't sleep under any here at home.

KM: That is okay. Is there anything else that you would like to share before we end?

JC: No just that I do hope other people will make the Alzheimer's Priority Quilts and raise more money for Alzheimer's research. Hopefully it will make a difference.

KM: It is more than $157,000 so that is really good, and I think the educational component certainly has got to help, and it is now moving into venues that are not quilt venues, which I think is very interesting too. I think it is great. I want to thank you very much for taking your time to talk to me today and sharing your thoughts and feeling, and we will conclude our interview and it is now 5:02.


“Jannett Caldwell,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 27, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1366.