Janet Finley




Janet Finley




Janet Finley


Sally Ambrose

Interview Date



Rockford, Illinois


Joanne Gasperik


Sally Ambrose (SA): This is Sally Ambrose and the date is October 4, 2002 and it is 2:26 p.m. I am conducting an interview with Janet Finley for Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project in Rockford, Illinois. Janet, tell me where you are from.

Janet Finley (JF): I live in Arvada, Colorado, which is a western suburb of Denver, Colorado.

SA: How long do you live there?

JF: I have lived there over 30 years, in the same house.

SA: Oh, good for you. [JF: Yeah.] Yes, what, now I'm looking at this quilt of yours, with the eagle and a border, a lovely border. Tell me about this quilt, Janet.

JF: Sally, this quilt is named "Warrior Eagle." And I made it because I like reproduction fabrics. I like the old antique quilts. In fact, I like all quilts and I wish I could do it all, but in this instance I made it for a purpose. I knew that Barbara Brackman was searching for quilts for her second Civil War book. And I'm going to grab that book. I had a friend that supplied Barbara Brackman with Civil War quilts for Barbara's first book. [SA hums approval.] And because of that Barbara put out a call for her second book saying, would anybody like to make a quilt for it. So I told my friend, her name is Jeananne Wright, and she lives in Longmont, Colorado. Yes, put me on Barbara's mailing list. So we started receiving on a monthly basis the patterns that were going to appear in Barbara's second book. And these patterns were based on authentic antique quilts. So I kept getting the patterns month after month. But I knew I wanted to do an appliqué, because I had been a piecer for over 18 years, sewing machine. [SA hums approval.] I thought appliqué would be too hard for me to do. I'm not interested. But somehow I did an appliqué piece and then to my instant delight I discovered I really liked appliqué better than piecing. Appliqué is more relaxing. It's something you can carry around. Piecing to me is harder than appliqué because piecing is really precision. And what I don't like about piecing so much is you're isolated with a sewing machine away from the family. But appliqué, you can do upstairs in the living room, when your husband's watching football, you can take it with you. And so I fell in love with appliqué. So when I was searching for the pattern I am going to do for Barbara's book and, you know we're not guaranteed she's going to put this quilt in the book. But I thought 'Oh, yeah, let's do a Civil War. I like the reproduction stuff. So this appliqué piece, the "Warrior Eagle" came that month and I said 'That's the one I'm going to do.' And I always had been collecting reproduction fabrics, because I like the antique quilts. So I could find my fabrics readily right off my shelf. I love the golds, the blues, and the reds and all those other colors that are in there. So I found my colors and I just started doing the "Warrior Eagle", not knowing Barbara would put it in the book, particularly. The original quilt is a four-block quilt and it measures about 90" x 90" but Barbara said you could do one or the four blocks. So I chose the one block version, because I lead such a busy life. [SA hums approval.] I only quilt by minutes per day - not by how many hours do you quilt per day. But I do finish things, so that's good. And lucky for me Barbara did choose my quilt for her book – a lady did do a four block version, so Barbara chose that for the book and that made room for my single block. That's what Barbara wanted, was to show what the single block looked like, so I was fortunate that in the end, the piece was accepted. It's Barbara's second Civil War book called "Civil War Women: Their Quilts, Their Rolls", [SA: Oh, yes.] and it's on page 8. So that was really thrilling for me to have the quilt appear in the book. And at the same time, we just recently found out my husband's relative had fought in the Civil War, and we came into possession of 18 of his letters leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg. His name was Alfred Lees. [spells: L E E S.] I wrote to the War Department and found out he was killed at the battle of Gettysburg and he died on July 12th. I'm going to refer back to the label. So I dedicated this quilt to Alfred Lees because of that Civil War connection. He served in Company A of the 150th Infantry Regiment of the Pennsylvania Volunteers. He died July 12th, 1863, but he was wounded July 3rd according to the government's records. He was held in reserve behind the Union lines during Pickets Charge, and was fatally injured by stray shrapnel. [SA reacts.] We amazingly got to go to Gettysburg, and we hired a guide whose expertise was Pennsylvania's 150th. So the guide took us around the whole day, from where the regiment entered Gettysburg to all of their marches and maneuvering and where they were during those whole three days. And we know Alfred Lees died in a field hospital. The guide showed us where the field hospital was located. And he says, 'This is where any wounded at Pickets Charge were taken behind the lines. And this most likely is where your relative was taken when he was wounded. And most likely he was wounded by a mortar fragment, because there was a lot of artillery going on and one piece just jumped over the immediate lines into those reserves and probably wounded him.' He's buried at Gettysburg and it was just a fascinating situation. So I was happy to be able to dedicate this quilt to that relative of my husband's.

SA: What do you plan to do with this quilt? Do you plan on showing it?

JF: I have showed it to many family members [SA: reacts.] and I do have it hanging in my house, and I have displayed it at work too. So it moves around. And it will just stay in the family. I have all intentions of passing it on that way. It has a beautiful label on the back that explains who Alfred Lees was. And it will stay with Alfred's 18 letters. [clunking noise in the background.]

SA: This is a very special quilt for you, isn't it?

JF: Yes, yes.

SA: Besides having this related to your relative, or to your husband's relative? [JF: Yes.] Okay.

Does it have another special meaning to you? Any other special meaning?

JF: Well, just the fact that I was able to execute it so nicely [SA: Oh, yes.] You know, some people have an attitude – they don't like making the reproduction quilts. But I do. It doesn't bother me at all. [sighs.] Somehow, when you do a reproduction quilt you're drawn into the past life of that person, even though you do not know them, but you're drawn back to the past- to another woman, unknown to you, you're just drawn into a supposition of where you might have come from. So, in reproducing a quilt someone had done before, you feel it's a connection to womankind. On this quilt, I am using all my quilting skills, which I enjoy doing. I had taken some classes from Hari Walner [SA hums approval.] on machine trapunto [SA: Okay.] and I asked Barbara Brackman (if you notice in the plain areas, there's trapuntoed stars that really are not on the original quilt), and I asked Barbara, 'Is it okay if I do that, Barbara? Because it's getting a little away from the real authenticity.' And she says 'Yes, fine, do whatever you want.' So I liked it. I added my trapunto stars based on Hari Walner's trapunto technique. The stippling between those stars is tight. There is no way I'm going to do stippling by hand. I just don't have that patience. But I have a lot of machine quilting skills, which worked very nicely with the stippling inside the main block. The stars have 3 layers of cotton batting and with the tight stippling, they really pop. Most of the eagle is machine quilted, too, because there is an element of time that is a problem with me. And doing it for Barbara's book, we had a deadline, too. But at the same time I like hand quilting too. [SA hums approval.] And I like to hand quilt where it really shows, and I like to machine quilt where it doesn't show. Most of my quilts are a combination of the two [both chuckle.] I don't make a quilt for competition particularly, but I make it with just the idea of finishing it as best as I can. So in this one it doesn't bother me the borders are hand quilted, because I knew that would show more and it actually lends itself to hand quilting better than machine quilting because of all the starts and stops. And the more you stop and stop with machine quilting; you have possibilities of problems happening. The red birds in the border are done by hand appliqué. The birds are too small for my machine appliqué expertise. In the main eagle, I did hand appliqué too, because I wanted a big appliqué project. However, again, thinking I'm running out of time, my blue ribbon sashing, is done with Harriet Hargrave 'Invisible Machine Appliqué' technique I learned years ago from Harriet. I'm a self-taught quilter but yet I've taken lots of lessons [laughs. rustling in the background. tape clicks off.]

SA: The tape recorder was turned off and I am resuming again at 2:36. It was turned off for about 10 seconds, while I coughed. Janet, when did you start quilting?

JF: I started quilting in 1963 and 4. [SA reacts.] I was doing this before anybody felt they had to be quilting. This is before the revival in a way. I was in college. My grandmother had quilted, though by the time I was aware of quilts, she had stopped quilting, but I knew she had quilts in the house. And I think it's genetic. I really think quilting is in my blood. Because for some reason I just felt I had to make a quilt. That to me is genetic. My mother was not a sewer. Nothing to do with my mother got me into this quilting, but it jumped from my grandmother to myself. My mother has no patience for sewing. She had a sewing machine in the house that was of inferior quality and very frustrating to use because the tension was never correct. Mother never encouraged me to sew anything. But it was my grandmother; I just felt I had to make a quilt. And then there is another strain of me that's penurious, that you wanted to make due with what you had. That too is partially genetic. And I was a failed garment maker. In the sixties, the patterns were kind of dumpy. You know if you made something in the sixties, you'd say 'Oh that's homemade.' I had no real direction in proper garment making, so my attempts at making clothes for myself weren't successful. But I had a love for fabric that was in my blood, therefore, I had fabric scraps and I had things like that. And so I took up quilting, while I was in college, just for something to do, and probably to relax me and divert me, etc, and I had these scraps and I said to myself naively, 'Oh' --

SA: We're stopping. [tape clicks.] It is 2:40 the tape recorder is on.

JF: Well I want to finish that.

SA: Oh go ahead. Do.

JF I said to myself naively 'Oh, what a good way to save money and to use my scraps.' [SA laughs.] So I did make a quilt from my scrap garment making. And I backed it with a sheet. And I hand quilted it. That was while I was in college. Now unknown to me this quilting interest is one of the most expensive things I could have taken up. [laughs.] It lead to [SA: That's true.] a vast expanse of activities. [SA: Probably true.] I spend a lot of money every year on supplies, quilts, activities, travels, etc. [SA hums approval.]

SA: So you quilt quite a lot every day?

JF: I lead a very busy life. Twenty years ago, in 1968, when I first started quilting, my husband had a greenhouse business. So I helped him in the greenhouse business: it was a family operated thing. It was very enjoyable. My husband is older that I am by quite a few years and when he retired in the late eighties I had to go out into the job market and work fulltime to support the family. So I'm a full-time wage earner. I have one grown child. But it doesn't leave a lot of time for quilting. I think I have produced a low number of quilts, but the ones I have done have given me great results. And I've had great repercussions from them. [SA: Is that right?] I've won some awards and so where I don't produce a lot, the few that I do have, have done a lot for me.

SA: What kind of awards have you won?

JF: I don't belong to any bees, because they meet during the day or evenings and I'm working or I'm too tired to be going out. But I did join my local guild [noise in the background.] It's called Columbine Quilt Guild [SA reacts.] and meets in Arvada, Colorado, once a month. It's the second Monday of every month. I won first place in several guild challenges. I was accepted into the Paducah, KY show once. And I won on two occasions, third place in Houston, Texas.

SA: What was your first memory of quilting or a quilt?

JF: Quilts? A first memory of a quilt? [SA hums approval.] Is in my grandmother's house. We'd visit her, she lived in Greeley, Colorado, and we lived in various states throughout the United States, but our summer vacations tended to be going to Greeley to visit the grandmother. And she had in her guest bedroom a Lone Star quilt, very proudly, pristinely displayed on her guest bed. And it was made from her fabrics, because she was a great apron maker. She had 6 girls and she made the dresses for them, too. So I always admired that Lone Star quilt. But by then she wasn't quilting. I've heard since then that she had quilting ladies come to her house. And they would quilt each others quilts. And she had a treadle sewing machine. And so here it was in the back of my head, this quilt [SA hums approval.] and I'm fortunate enough today that I do own that quilt. [SA reacts.] She made a quilt for each of those 6 daughters. But in the 30's and 40's that was not the prestige item to have. My mother received a Sunbonnet Sue quilt from her mother when she married, but she used it as a mattress cover. In those days, handmade was not valued. You strove to have the store-bought dress, and with her mother making her the dresses growing up, her goal was to have a store-bought dress so handmade quilts were not valued.

SA: Now you brought this quilt today that is reproduction fabrics and recently made. What prompted you to bring this quilt rather than one of your [inaudible.]

JF: Well it was [SA: --Antique.] available and it was small sized and I had a luggage problem.

You had asked me too, what kind of awards I've won [SA hums approval.] I've really had a very fortunate career in quilting, so another one was through my guild activities I became acquainted with Hari Walner, [SA hums approval.] "Machine Quilting", "Exploring Machine Trapunto" was her second book. But she, on her second book, was looking for ladies to quilt for her and she always drew from the Denver area. And she invited me to make a quilt for the book and I said, 'Hari, why did you ask me?' She says, 'Because the way you ran your guild meetings.' I was then President of my guild. 'You're so well organized. I know you'll get it done.' And I said, 'Hari, I have other friends that machine quilt.' 'I don't care. I'm picking the ladies that I think will do it.' So, that's how that happened. And she had us all come over to her house and showed the group of us her patterns and she said these are the continuous line quilting patterns that'll be in my book. You choose one and go do it, you know. She was very supportive of us. We had about eight months to make our quilt for her book. I chose to make an 85 x 85 inch quilt. But I thought [laughs.] now I have this Single Irish Chain done in two colors, blue and white and I thought 'Oooh, I have a head start, I'll use that one [SA laughs.] and here's the pattern. It was a heart pattern that fit perfectly in that white space of a Single Irish Chain, so I thought I was ahead of the game. [SA laughs.] In reality I wasn't so much. And anyway, Hari taught us how to do her machine trapunto. But this was an exercise in actually getting something done on time. Because there are so many hours involved. I think I have over 300 hours in that machine trapunto quilt. And she had us track our hours because she wanted to mention in the book how speedy you can do these quilts. I started it and then in the month of July I was at the process where I'm removing the batting in the areas not being trapuntoed, [SA hums approval.] the excess batting, and it was July, and it was hot, but I knew I had to do the job. I had 72 white squares, so I did two blocks a night. And I just stuck to the schedule. And I'm working full-time, too. And so then I'd get up at 5 in the morning, before going to work and I had to sew so much stippling and that's how that quilt got done. And I said 'Hari, really [laughs.] I did it because of you.' And I ran into trouble during that process. She uses a water-soluble thread [SA hums approval.] as part of her process. But in August, and my windows are open, it was so humid or so wettish that the moisture from the air was disintegrating the water soluble thread right before my eyes. I stippled for about 20 seconds and then the thread would break. So I called Hari. And I said 'Hari, I can't do it. I won't get this done. The thread's breaking too often.' And so we figured it out. It's one of her helpful hints in the book. You loosen the machine's tension to zero. No tension. And it got the thread coming through the sewing machine better.

SA: Very good.

JF: But we realized it was that moisture in the air.

SA: Sure. Sure.

JF: It was sure interesting. And then that quilt, because of Hari, I entered it in Houston and it won third place. I can't remember the year, 1999, something like that. Third place in machine quilting. So that kind of got the bug under my fire, that competition might be fun. [SA: yes.] And I had entered quilts just locally, just based on peer-pressure. My friends would say 'Oh yeah, enter a quilt in the Colorado Quilting Council thing, or whatever.

SA: Have you ever used quilting to work through a difficult problem in your life?

JF: I think I've used quilting all of my life, all of my life as a, just getting through life thing, period. I've not had any traumatized situation, when I made a quilt, because of an event, but I think quilting has been in my life. It's just gotten me 'through life', is what I say. [SA: That's good.] Yeah.

SA: What do you think makes a very great quilt? What are the things when you see a quilt and you say 'Oh. That is great.' What--

JF: Well, I think a quilt is great if it tells a great story or if it was made because of a great occasion. A great quilt doesn't have to have the best workmanship or the best design or the best color. I think a lot of it is 'Why was the quilt made, that causes it to be a great quilt?

SA: What about artistically powerful? You know we see quilts so frequently that we say 'Now that's a piece of art.' What do you think?

JF: I think that can happen both in the traditional and the contemporary. I feel a lot of the quiltmakers of the past were artistically powerful. You know I say I love quilts. I love them all. And I truly feel, when I'm retired, I want to do the artistic quilt too, because I think it's in me. But I haven't made that effort or that plunge to do the artistic quilt. I think it's harder to make a piece that's totally creative versus something from a pattern. But I think there's a place for both. In my current lifestyle I do not feel comfortable doing a totally artistic piece, because I don't want that anxiety and that tension of creativity. I can't take it. I have that every day. [SA hums approval.] I want to come home. I want something safe, reliable. So that's serving my purpose now. That's this reproduction quilt. It's safe--

SA: That's very--

JF: Reliable. It's soothing. And I don't want that tension of creativity. Though I've had it in the past and that's why I know I can describe it. But –

SA: Well, how do you suppose some of these quilters that are really great quilt artists – and that's not to say that people do traditional quilts are not great artists.

JF: They're not.

SA: Where do they learn their skills?

JF: I'm always constantly drawn to the past, to the quiltmaker of the past. Most of them are anonymous, but they were as creative and skilled without their quilt classes, without their quilt shops in their own right, that they had a wonderful sense of design. And we're looking at it today and I think it translates into our modern quiltmakers that even though they're doing bizarre things with fabric, painting on fabric, embellishing fabric, whatever. There's always that connection to the quiltmaker of the past. They're always drawing from past things. [SA hums approval.] There is a continuous thread going there. There is nothing really new on the face of the earth. [someone clears their throat.]

SA: What do you think is important about quilts in America? How does quilting, not commercially necessarily, but how does quilting impact our country?

JF: I think it tells the story of women in America. I recently became the director of the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum and to me exhibiting quilts is more than just showing a quilt. Quilts are going to tell the story of women, especially anonymous women. That really touches me. [SA hums approval.] So if we can find the quiltmaker of the past who was an anonymous homemaker but who successfully raised her family through difficult times, and we can tell her story - that touches me more than anything, more than your contemporary famous quiltmaker. I like bringing out the stories of the silent but true, sincere people that have brought us to where we are today. And for us to tell their story is very touching for me. And what also moves me is that when a woman is gone, even if the quilt remains anonymous, we knew someone was there. We knew that person was there. And a quilt is the last aspect of her life to survive. So many times when a woman is deceased, her pots and pans are given away, her furniture is given away, maybe there is a piece of jewelry that stays with the family, but invariably, if she was a quiltmaker, the quilt is still there, saying 'I was here, I was here.' And that to me is a strong message.

SA: It is a strong message.

JF: Whether it's an anonymous woman or whether there is a name to that quilt. 'I was there.' And it just sends shivers up your spine.

SA: Very interesting. That is a good point to make. [JF: Uhuh.] That is what is left of us.

JF: Right.

SA: That one little piece of material item that is us. [JF hums approval.] How do you think quilts can be used besides hanging in a gallery?

JF: There are gallery quilts, all right. I think that quilts are an expression of love and comfort and I know many women who are interested only in giving quilts away. [SA hums approval.]And I know many women whose passion is to make charity quilts. I personally don't indulge in the charity quilts, but I know of many organizations, especially in Colorado, that make the charity quilts for the – let's see, I'm not thinking of them right away, but a lot of children in the children's hospital, abused children and the women love it. [SA hums approval.] So I think quilts can cover any aspect of our current-day life. And I see them as an expression of love and warmth which is not bad at all.

SA: How can we preserve quilts for our future? For our children's future? How can we preserve this [inaudible.]

JF: I think just keep making quilts. People say to me, 'What isn't this a fad? Won't it go away?' You know our current quilting interest began in the late seventies. I think it's here to stay. The serious professional artist is picking fabric as a medium, rather than oils or paints and when that happens there is longevity. And the men are starting to get into quilting. When a man approaches a quilt, it becomes a business. So we've got that element going. The emergence of quilt museums is another good sign. In 1990, when the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum was founded, we were the third quilt museum in the United States. Now there are over 10 quilt museums. I think having these museums that are dedicated to quilts is an important factor in preserving and protecting our heritage.

SA: [tape clicks.] Janet, do you have anything else you'd like to add to this interview?

JF: No. I'm just happy to have taken part in it, and I know I'll go back to Colorado and try to get interviews of our wonderful quilting heritage that we have here in Colorado and in the Western United States.

SA: And I know Colorado has a very large--[both are talking at the same time.]

JF: Colorado is a powerhouse for quilters.

SA: Yes. Yes. Well thank you, Janet, for allowing me to interview you today as part of the Quilters S.O.S. Save our Stories at American Quilt Study Group Conference here in, where are we? [laughs.] Rockford, [JF: Rockford.] Illinois. The interview has concluded at 2:56 p.m. on October 4, 2002.

JF: Thank you Sally.


“Janet Finley,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1434.