Joyce Spence




Joyce Spence




Joyce Spence


Claire Lynn Robinson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Susan Salser


Campbell, CA


Billie Spence


Claire Lynn Robinson (CLR): My name is Claire Lynn Robinson and today's date is March 26, 2009 at 2 0'clock. I am conducting an interview with Joy C. Spence in her home at in Campbell, California, for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. We are doing this through the American Heritage Committee of the California State Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Joy is a quilter and is a member of the Santa Clara Chapter. Joy, do you make quilts?

Joy C. Spence (JCS): Yes I do?

CLR: Do you make wearable art?

JCS: No, wearable art is a more advanced form of quilting and I am a more traditional piece work, save the pieces, and put together type of person.

CLR: Do you sleep under a quilt?

JCS: Yes, I do because it is the warmest thing I have and it's full of love.

CLR: Have you given quilts as gifts?

JCS: Yes I have, mostly in the class we did. The quilt was a reward for being in the class and finishing the subject of the quilt block. So yes, I have given quilts as a gift.

CLR: Are you self taught?

JCS: No, I am not. My grandmother and my great aunt used to quilt. They both lived in San Jose and of course in those days for my grandmother to get to my great aunt she had to take the trolley and that meant going down to downtown San Jose and then back out to the Alameda. The two girls would quilt one afternoon a week and make all these sorts of quilts the Dresden Plate was one they particularly liked and did many of the Sun Bonnet Girl was another one they enjoyed doing and I have those quilts in my collection.

CLR: Do you have any other quilters in your family?

JCS: No, not any others that I know of. Some great aunts were painters and artisans of other kinds but no other quilters that I know of.

CLR: Do you belong to a guild?

JCS: I tried belonging to a guild and that really didn't work out for me because I tend to start objects and not finish them and the people in the guild always came with such wonderful, wonderful things to how to everyone and I was never a finisher.

CLR: Do you belong to a sewing group or a quilting bee?

JCS: I belong to a sewing group within our DAR society. We are known as the Pins and Needles group and we do quilting, sewing and various handwork items for Ronald McDonald House and the Veterans Hospital in Palo Alto.

CLR: Have pictures of you and your quilts or patterns been published?

JCS: Pictures have not been published per se. I did have a TV program under the auspices of Ohlone Community College in Fremont and we did creative hand work there. One of the objects was quilting so that was a very popular item.

CLR: Do you collect or sell quilts?

JCS: I collect quilts. Unfortunately, selling them has not been one of my better qualities [laughs.] so collecting is what I do best. I have several from my family. My mother's friends who did not have children gifted me with their quilts. Knowing that I would care for them like they had were my own. And I do go to the various thrift shops and buy pieces and parts, never put them together but do buy the pieces and parts and enjoy them.

CLR: Do you have a collection of quilting or sewing memorabilia?

JCS: Yes, I have a collection of quilting and sewing memorabilia [laughs.] sewing birds, sewing machines, thimbles, sewing items, needles, scissors, um patterns of various and a sundry quilts. I like the collection from the Kansas City Star particularly and I had a friend who bought them all for me and sent them to me, so I have that collection also.

CLR: Do you teach quilting?

JCS: I did. I'm since retired but I do, did, teach quilting. It was a very popular class it began under the auspices of creative hand work and we did embroidery, tatting, quilting hardanger that type of thing but the request was for a quilting class altogether. So we began to have beginning, advanced and advanced, advanced quilting because when we got into the quilts that had many, many, many pieces or were very elaborate in cutting and fussy quilting and that type of thing. So the classes they were considered to be full at 25 people. When you are going from person to person trying to give each one individual attention, 25 people is a lot to get around a classroom in. So it worked and everyone was very kind and took their turn in waiting for me to get to them that's how this quilt I am currently talking about or going to display came to be.

In 1976, we were going to celebrate our bicentennial and the class was just for that particular thing, a patriotic quilt. So we chose, the class as a unit, chose "America the Beautiful" as the theme. Each block is one line of the song then we added. We found we had more blocks needed than the song entailed so we added the four points of the Untied States which happened to be Alaska, Hawaii, Maine and Texas. They chose Texas instead of Florida because it was the biggest state and they could do more with it and then we chose several landmarks on the campus to be included in the quilt. So it is a king size quilt and each person was given a block of fabric suitable in size 12 [inches.] by 12 [inches.]. Also green and yellow colors were the colors of Ohlone College [Newark and Fremont, California.] and those were given as stripes to put around the side of the quilt. The block and the back were to be yellow, batting included. So they put the whole back together and then they handed it in. So, what we had was everything quilted and nothing put together as a whole, just blocks. So in 1986, ten years later, I told you I am a slow finisher. In 1986, the class was resumed I had been teaching all along and there were two girls in the class who had taken the original 1976 class, they were very enthusiastic about the quilt and the need to finish it. So I got all the pieces from home and they sat there and put all together. It took them the 12 weeks of class to do that, and we then displayed it at Ohlone College.

CLR: So this has a lot of special meaning this quilt has a lot of special meaning for you?

JCS: Yes, it does. It was a lot of fun and it is interesting to see the techniques that the people put in it. For instance, one of the pictures that doesn't show up very well was the putting of gauze over the bright, bright color and it shows as a very pale pastel thing. A another one was very simple. The girl did not know what to do about brotherhood so she took Abe Lincoln and made his head just a single thing on the quilt. Many of the quilts are the blocks very, very ornate that took a lot of time, money because these things are not cheap when you do embroidery work. However, we all joined together. Each person did their own thing and their own technique, so it is really is a very unique thing and I will remember all those people with a great deal of love and joy.

CLR: So you have a lot of quilts so why did you choose this one for the interview?

JCS: Well this one will probably never be seen [laughs.] seeing that it doesn't come out of my closet but rarely. This has so many people participating that when you talk about quilts made by quilt clubs or people getting together to quilt together this shows a lot of unity. It's a challenge to get the blocks to all mesh together so they look like they belong when they are done by individuals. It is more fun to watch the person grow and their quilt block grow as they design it.

CLR: What are your plans for this quilt?

JCS: Back in the closet. [laughs.] I hope to display it a few more times because it is unusual and then put it with the rest that I treasure.

CLR: Tell me about your own interest in quiltmaking.

JCS: My own interest. [pause.] My husband and I did things together always. And so if I would start a project he would say, 'Now what can I do to help?' So we decided on [screeching on tape creates an inaudible.] Delectable Mountain. We would stop at night at 4 o'clock. There is happy hour every night at 4 o'clock some place in the world, and we would get out all the fabrics. He would cut out all the pieces and it took us two years of summer travel for him to get all the pieces cut out and I began to put it together. Now it is not finished by any manner of means it is a king size and it isn't done by any manner of means but it is a memory of all the trips we took and the pleasure we had seeing it grow.

CLR: At what age did you start quilting with your grandma and great aunt?

JCS: My grandma started babysitting me when I was about 6 because I lived here in San Jose and at that time it was sew four blocks together and you had a doll quilt. So that is what we would do and she was a very patient woman. She was very talented because she could look at a pattern, layout the material, and cut it without ever looking again at the pattern. Just cut it out, sew it up and there it was. She made dresses for the period dolls in that method and she was very, very clever.

CLR: So that was your first quilt memory? Your making quilts? For your doll?

JCS: Yes, it was and I've enjoyed doing that and now I make quilts for baby dolls a little bigger. You asked me before if I had done any wearable art. My first attempt at a wearable art was at a class at San Jose State and the instructor came up to me and patted me on the shoulder and said well you do try. So she offered me a B if I wouldn't even come to class [laughs.] because I was having such a struggle with this wearable art. And that is very true I do have a lot of difficulty [laughs.] with that.

CLR: Are there other quiltmakers among your friends or family?

JCS: Yes, I have quilt counting friends and there is always a certain friendship that develops between quilters. You don't necessarily have to do the same thing and of course it is nice to have a language that more than you understand and that is what happens when you have quilting friends. You can chat about most anything. You can see art everywhere. You can see quilting everywhere. Patterns seem to develop before your eyes. It is an interesting way to look at life.

CLR: Does your quiltmaking impact your family at all?

JCS: Does my quiltmaking?

CLR: Yeah, or your quilt obsession. [laughs.]

JCS: Oh yes, they always know what to get me as a gift you know. A quilt would be fine, [laughs.] but I don't think they value them as much as I do. The more work you do on something the more value it has to you and some of my quilts have beautiful quilting. I know that my family look at it and say well you know that is a pretty nice design but they don't see the time and effort that goes into the tiny, tiny, stitches that are on the back of the quilt.

CLR: Have you ever use quilts to get you through a difficult time?

JCS: Yes, I believe so because quilting is something you can pick up and put down years later. I can certainly vouch for that, but you can pick it up and put it down and never loose a beat in your creative work. So I think, yes, it has helped me many times, but it also keeps it you sort of sane. When you look at some of these things, you think this is going to last far longer than my problem at this time. A quilt can last forever it seems and problems seem to come and go.

CLR: Tell me about an amusing, amusing experience that has occurred through your quiltmaking if you have or in your teaching.

JCS: The only amusing experience I had--well, it is always amusing when people say, 'Well I can't do that,' then they turn around and do it. I have taken only one quilt class in my entire life, and it was fun. It was also informative because the instructor wanted to do things that I would never in my true life have done. For instance, we tore stripes for our American Flag and they turned out to be wavy and we couldn't use them at all, so 'I told you so.' But, I haven't found things, 'ha, ha.' I find them fun to do and that may be amusing, but not funny.

CLR: What do you find pleasing about quiltmaking?

JCS: The sharpness of the fabric, how it feels in your hands, how small you can get a stitch. How much appliqué you can put on something and still not loose your eye sight. I like the strips in left over quilts much better than anything else. And I think just because I have a saving quality in my family. I can't bear to throw anything away so any little piece or strip has a place in a quilt I think.

CLR: What aspects of quiltmaking do you not enjoy?

JCS: Putting together. [laughs.] I would just as soon have somebody else put it together for me, as I do it, although that is the finishing touch of your quilt, that is the mark you put on it, is how you put it together and the facts that you put into it as you sew it together.

CLR: What art or quilt groups do you belong to?

JCS: I do not belong to any more. I don't I don't find that I have the time nor the patience to go to an art of quilt group.

CLR: Have advances in technology influenced your work.

JCS: Yes, indeed, with you see all these little goodies that you simply to have to have. The small iron that will press the minutest little corner, the turning tool they use for bias tape these days, the size of needles that you can buy, the kind of thimbles that you can use, the cutting tools that you have. I can remember that I used to have a board on my table and I would cut with these humongous sheers and now I have a plastic piece with a cutter that I cut the material with, so there is all sorts of and material the fabric has changed, patterns have changed, so you can find most anything to suit your needs.

CLR: Do you have any favorite techniques in material?

JCS: 100% cotton is my favorite because you can wash it and it still supposedly retains its shape and I like appliqué and I like hand sewing best.

CLR: Describe your studio or the place you create.

JCS: Well, we can't get into right this minute, but I have three sewing machines that I use that are in my sewing room and my quilts are packed away in pillow cases in the closet but I can have them out and refer to them for different items if I want and I did have a wall that I used put things up when I was teaching but not any more.

CLR: What do you think makes a great quilt?

JCS: A great quilt. Well, a great quilt to me is like the Texas Star. All those wonderful pieces of fabric put together in beautiful colors and the work, although the Baltimore Quilt wins a close second. With all the beautiful flowers and appliqué and stitching that is done on it.

CLR: What makes a quilt artistically powerful?

JCS: I don't even know what that means I don't think. What do you mean artistically powerful?

CLR: Well, if you look at it, do you go, 'Wow.'

JCS: I guess the Hawaiian Quilt then would be the 'wow' because it starts out as such a simple snow flake and then as you lay it down and you begin to stitch it, it becomes like it has a life of its own it is completely different. I guess, I guess that would be a "wow" quilt.

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

JCS: There is one gal, Mary Therese, I don't remember her last name now and she did beautiful things and her quilts were on display down at the San Jose Quilt Museum for a big period of time and her things were wow and because she used all sorts of mediums. I mean she didn't just use fabric she had other things as well.

CLR:: Whose works are you drawn to? Any particular ones?

JCS: No, not really, I enjoy looking through the quilt the quilt magazines and seeing the different kinds of quilts but as I say I like the pieces and parts.

CLR: How do you feel about machine quilting verses hand quilting? And what about longarm quilting?

JCS: Oh, but you should ask. [laughs.] Machine quilting has its place. For instance, if I doing a small quilt for a child or for a veteran at the Palo Alto hospital I would do machine quilting because it is going to be given a lot of care, a lot of wear, and the handwork would probably hold up. Sometimes handwork holds up a lot better than machine quilting. On the other hand, the time spent would be better spent doing the machine quilting to get the quilt done and up to them instead of sitting and doing your handwork. But I prefer handwork now when I put my quilts together. I use a back stitch so that one side looks like machine quilting and the other side looks like an outline stitch. I find that holds up for ever and ever and ever.

CLR: Well!

JCS: And as for longarm quilting, it has its place among the quick quilts, but I would prefer the hand quilting of our Amish friends.

CLR: Why is quiltmaking important to your life?

JCS: I guess because it is a part of my childhood and its something that will outlast all of us, it does outlast all of us so something that you do for a friend can be for the next friend and the next friend and next friend.

CLR: In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history in America?

JCS: I have to think about that because if you take quilt in its ethnic sense each country the women have done something completely different with their hand work in the quilting. The Laos people, the Indian girls, the American Indian, even the African American people. All these people have such a distinctive type of quilting that it will last forever and denote who they are.

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

JCS: Well with things changing so much and the acid free things coming it is probably easier to preserve a quilt now than it ever was. First, I began to use the moth balls. I have little bags of moth balls I put in my quilt and tucked away until the day I almost passed out in the closet because the moth ball got to me. So then I began using Redwood pieces and that was fine but now I find that if you just will make sure it is clean and put it in a clean pillow case that even something like a dryer rag will keep it fairly decent smelling and not mold or anything. You can't let anything get mold on it or rust.

CLR: What has happened to the quilts that you have made for families and friends?

JCS: Well, hopefully, the dog is not lying on them. I don't know that to be true, [laughs.] but mostly the quilts went to students so I would assume that students kept them and treasured them just as much as we did when we made them.

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

JCS: The time to get to do it. People are so busy these days that it would be difficult to find time to just sit and quilt all day. They have too many other activities they need to do so your quilting time is generally a couple of hours in the evening or maybe an hour or two during the day. There just isn't enough time to get everything done you want to do.

CLR: Have you ever participated in quilt history preservations?

JCS: This is a first experience.

CLR: Is there anything else you would like to add to this interview?

JCS: It has been a pleasure to do this and be involved in this and to have my quilt documented as being one of many that would be of interest to people I hope they will understand that if even after 10 years goes by the quilt is still made by the people who found it fun and interesting.

CLR: I would like to thank Joy C. Spence for allowing me to interview her today as a part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories. Our interview concluded at 2:20 on March 26, 2009.


“Joyce Spence,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024,