Judy Forbes




Judy Forbes




Judy Forbes


Pat Keller

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Nancy O'Bryant Puentes


Newark, Delaware


Julie Henderson


[Editors note: This interview was conducted as part of the training to demonstrate how to conduct a Quilters' S.O.S. – Save Our Stories interview.]

Pat Keller (PK): [tapes begins in mid-sentence.] --so that I'm sure it catches everything. I'm going to look at it now and make sure it's operating well – and everything seems to be working fine. Hi.

Judy Forbes (JF): Hi.

PK: I'm Pat Keller and we're at the Q.S.O.S. training program for the Ladybug Quilters Guild. Today is April 20th, 2002. I'm interviewing Judy Forbes. So, Judy, tell me a little bit about yourself. When did you begin quilting?

JF: Around 1986.

PK: Around 1986, okay. Are you from Delaware?

JF: Yes--well, this is where I've been for thirty years.

PK: I see. Where were you born?

JF: I was born in Glens Falls, New York.

PK: Glens Falls, New York, okay. I'll come back to talking about your family in a little bit, but I'm interested in knowing something about the object that you brought today. Can you tell me about it?

JF: Well, this was a quilt that I made on inspiration from reading a story about an Amish family that gave or presented somebody whose mother had died with a quilt made out of clothing that she had worn. I thought, oh, isn't that a nice idea. So, when my mother died, my sister and I were going through her clothes. I said, 'I want the cotton dresses.' She said, 'You're not going to cut up mother's beautiful dresses, are you?' I said, 'I certainly am.' [Laughter] My mother loved roses and she loved the color green, and so this is made out of three of her dresses. Actually, it's really not quilted. I think there's some flannel in there. It has a batting and all I did was stitch around the edge. I hadn't got into hand quilting as much, and I really enjoy that.

PK: I see. What was your mother's name?

JF: Ellen Grant.

PK: Where was she born?

JF: She was born in Mexico, New York.

PK: When?

JF: 19--[pauses for five seconds.] 1908, maybe.

PK: When did you make this object?

JF: I made this in 1992, the year she died.

PK: So you'd been quilting for a little while at that point.

JF: Yes.

PK: Tell me about the dresses. Were they special occasion dresses?

JF: No. She had trouble finding clothes that fit her, so she made her own. It was nothing that we were going to be able to sell at a resale shop. [laughter.] She had sewn a lot. I had gotten started at sewing when I was, I guess in junior high - actually, even before then. I was the kind of kid that they sent me to bed early and I would start stitching. One time I stitched the object I was stitching to my pajamas, and I had to go downstairs and get help. [laughter.] The other kids were still out playing, and I was supposed to go to bed. But anyway, we made clothing as an economic issue; it was much cheaper to make your own clothes. Actually, my first quilt was made out of corduroy scraps. Just big square blocks put together until it was the size that was good to use.

PK: How do use this quilt?

JF: This is a wall hanging. I have a space in my sewing area that I have wall hangings that I change frequently.

PK: Did you make more than one out of your mother's dresses?

JF: No. I made my sister a little pillow. She didn't even want my mother's paintings, so I thought, well, a pillow's big enough for her. [laughter.]

PK: You learned to sew when you were in junior high. Who taught you?

JF: We had a sewing class in school. I can't remember--I guess that's when I really started using my mother's machine. I may have tried before. I only put the needle through my finger once. I had to back it out and run downstairs and tell mother about it.

PK: What was the sewing machine your mother had?

JF: I remember her using a treadle machine. I can't remember if--it may have been--I can remember her going to buy her first electric machine.

PK: Is that the one you learned on? [JF: Yes.] PK: An electric machine. How did you come to quilting in 1986?

JF: Where I was working, another woman had gone to classes. I thought, oh my gosh, you put all those little, tiny squares together? 'Yes,' she says, 'but there's this marvelous thing called the rotary cutter.' So, I thought, 'Well, that's kind of interesting.' I tried a bunch of different crafts. So, I signed up for this class. Then I thought, gee you know, I could be perfectly happy with just squares and rectangles, for years and years, probably. Do I really want to take that class on triangles or not? Well, you know that opens up a whole new world, so I took the class on triangles. Since I've retired, I thought I would have more time to quilt, and there isn't enough time. [another guild member says, 'That's right.' While others laugh.] You do have to do some things like the chores. You try to avoid them.

PK: Tell me about some of your quilt projects.

JF: Well, I have made quilts for all members of the family. My most recent goal for this year is to finish making Christmas quilts for all the grandchildren. I've got a good start on that. We just had our eighth grandchild born in March. But the two older girls had a Christmas quilt that I had made out of panels that had Norman Rockwell prints on them. Then their younger brother got his Christmas quilt this past year. I've got two more done and two more to go. The little baby will probably get one in a couple of years.

PK: Sounds like a lot of quilts.

JF: But it's fun. There's never an end to the projects in your head and the ones you're working on.

PK: I'm always curious when people say they make quilts for all members of their family; I ask this question: why do you do that?

JF: Oh, because it's fun. I like to give something that I think somebody can use. I made one for my sister, probably about fifteen years ago. When I saw it last summer, I thought, 'Oh gosh, is that ugly!' My skills, I do believe, have been increased over the years. I've finally figured it out. You know what? She wouldn't ask me for another quilt. So, I thought, well, I just need to offer. I have to find out the colors. So, I called her a couple of weeks ago and said, 'I would like to make another quilt for your bed.' She said, 'Well, that one isn't worn out yet.' I said, 'That's okay, it doesn't have to be worn out. It would give me great pleasure to make you another quilt.' She thought about it, and she did call me yesterday afternoon and told me the colors. Well, I already have an idea of what I want to do, but it's always fun to just look through the books again and think, oh yeah, I'd like to one with an incorporated border this time. Over the years I've decided that borders are more and more important. They just give a much more finished look to the whole project. When I gave my sister the quilt for Christmas, my mother said to me, 'Don't make one for me.' [laughter.] She liked to choose her own colors; she liked to do her own decorating; she liked the thought process. She didn't want anybody to just dream it up and drop it in on her.

PK: Was that okay?

JF: Yeah, that was fine. I knew how particular she was.

PK: Your family seems to come up often when you talk about quilting. How does your quilting impact on your family?

JF: My oldest daughter is a great quilt asker. [laughter.]

PK: What does that mean?

JF: "Mom, you made a little quilt for so-and-so, how about making one for my bed?" I gave her some books to look at and she chose one. That was fun, because that had some open blocks in it; I could do some hand quilting in it. My middle daughter actually - well, I've made her one quilt that she asked for in lavender tones. She doesn't use a lot of quilting. She's not country in her home decorating. I don't think quilting is all country. I think you can use a lot of modern patterns and prints and all for that. My youngest daughter has a stairway that goes up to a landing and then you turn a corner and go up. So, she's got this wall that's great for hanging something on. She said, 'You know Mom, that quilt that you made that I didn't know what I was going to do with.' She said, 'It's one of the prettiest ones yet. Could I have it?' 'Oh sure.' I made one foundation piece of a poinsettia and that was a big project for me; it turned out nice. She said, 'You know Mom, could you make me one like that?' I said, 'Oh sure, I'll just put a bigger border on it.' Then she said, 'You know, it would be nice to have something for a transition between the Christmas season and spring.' [laughter.] Because the lavender and peach and soft green was sort of a springy one. I said, 'Oh, sure, we can make one.' So I did one for the after Christmas--well, that's not going to do for Valentine's Day either. [laughter.] I'd been dying to do a color wash quilt. I made a little one for a wall hanging--a basket with some flowers and I kind of got the hang of it. I tried a bigger one with a heart, with kind of navy colors in it. It's like putting a puzzle together, because you have to just play with it. Then my oldest daughter saw it, and she said, 'Oh, that's beautiful but I would like one in maroons – the colors that go in my living room.' [laughter.] Okay. There's always one that you just keep thinking about and somebody's getting married--Cindy had a friend who was going to be married. We were invited to the wedding, and I thought, I can't think of any gift for Jill. Can I make her a quilt? Cindy said sure. It was not hand quilted. It begged to be, but I had a very limited timeframe. It had large pieces in it, so it went together fast. I used that again for another quilt for family. I'm in the process of making another one for--sometimes the colors come out as a surprise. What you think when you shop--they wanted beachy colors and you just are looking--not this row, not this row, and then I found the perfect one. It had darning needles on it, and there was this marvelous blue that went with it. I had some other fabrics and I put it together and combined blocks--two different kinds of blocks. I just think that that's very interesting. So that's another one that's ready to be layered up.

PK: Projects galore.

JF: Yes, it's nice to have more than one, because I need something for the hand quilting in the evening, and something to work on during the day. Sometimes you can stop right in the middle of making one quilt and decide, oh my goodness; here I am making something else.

PK: Is your husband still living?

JF: Yes.

PK: How does he feel about your quilting?

JF: Oh, he's very happy that I have a hobby. One time when my sewing machine broke, and there was no fixing it, he said, 'Well, we'll just have to get you another one.' So, he's very supportive and I don't have to hide fabric when I buy it and bring it in the house. [laughter.]

PK: Well, that's a very interesting statement. [laughter.]

JF: Because I've heard that some people do – they keep it in the trunk of the car until he's not at home or he's upstairs and they put it in their stash. The boxes and boxes and boxes of fabric are in the basement where I do my home fabric shopping and he knows they're there, but he doesn't know how they're categorized. [Laughter]

PK: I don't know what to ask first. [laughter.] I'm going to go for the categorizing. Tell me about that.

JF: Okay. Well, how do you put them? Do you put them by colors, or do you put them by size, or novelty fabrics have a lot of different colors in them--so you've got a box with big pieces of fabric, more than a yard, and it seems like there's a lot of Christmas fabrics in there, but I've got these Christmas projects going on. Then you've got a box with smaller pieces that are less than a yard. Then you kind of do the rainbow effect, we do some reds, oranges, yellows, greens, okay. Then you've got a box of smaller fabrics, that are just little scrap pieces. But you never throw anything away that's big enough to make a pocket [laughs.] that is kind of funny.

PK: You're holding your hands up in a circle about the size of dinner or lunch plate.

JF: [spoken while laughing.] Oh, because even schnittles get put in another box for the grandchildren to do fabric painting. If you ever run out of a project, oh, hey I've got something for you. Here are all these little fabric scraps and you just take a glue stick and go paste it on paper.

PK: That's fabric painting.

JF: Yeah.

PK: What are schnittles?

JF: The ones that are really too small to sew on.

PK: What are your home shopping fabrics, and what else are there?

JF: Well, there's the ones in the store that you have to pay money for but the ones in your basement [laughing.] you've already bought so they're free. [laughter.]

PK: Thank you.

JF: We have a lot of excuses, I guess, for why we have so much fabric. Then I didn't realize that it was starting to get dated. My neighbor came over and she said, 'Oh, I know when you got that. Sometime in the seventies.' Well, probably it was the late seventies, but it was seventies fabric because there was a lot of pin dots. I wouldn't be surprised. I've got pin dots in every color, because they were popular at the end of the seventies and into the eighties when I got started. I used to look for real cheap, too. That's the stuff that the stores were trying to get rid of.

PK: So why do you have so much fabric?

JF: Oh, because it's fun. It's usable. It's all usable. I can make scrap projects until I'm too old to see. But there's always something that you can make. The kids will ask me, 'Hey Mom, do you have anything that's such-and-such a color?' Oh, yeah, I probably do somewhere. You know, you've got the flannels in one section, and I even started cutting up some of my little scraps, so they are all ready. When you've come to the end of a row and there's two inches left, well you just put that in the little two-inch pile. The other thing that's kind of interesting is that when you're stringing up a quilt and you come to the end of a row; instead of using a little feeder, instead of wasting the thread on that because you have to be a little economical about all the things that you do, then you get the two-inch scraps together and you've got the starting of a nine-patch. So you sew onto these little two-inch pieces that are put together and then you can cut off the big project that you're working on. You haven't wasted any thread. That's a feeder for the next row of your project to work through. You wouldn't believe how many nine-patches you can get made that way, just incidentally. Then you've got the makings for a donation quilt.

PK: Do you make quilts for charity?

JF: Yes.

PK: What kinds of quilts do you make for charity?

JF: Okay, mostly squares and rectangles. [laughter.] Because the triangles add a lot of interest to a quilt, but they take a heck of a lot longer to do.

PK: So, the quilts you make for charity are different from the quilts you make otherwise-- [JF: Mm-hmm.] because of time.

JF: Time, yes.

PK: Anything else?

JF: Well, you're not sure how much somebody would appreciate the quilt. If it's just for warmth, then you want it to be warm and to cover them. I have a hard time making a quilt that doesn't look somewhat coordinated or pretty. I want it to hold up when it's washed, but I have a feeling it won't have long life.

PK: You mentioned earlier some difference between hand quilting, and I imagine you're thinking machine quilting.

JF: Yes.

PK: Tell me how you use hand quilting and when.

JF: If I were going to do this quilt again, I'd definitely do some hand quilting in the blank, in the plain blocks.

PK: Why?

JF: Because it adds more interest.

PK: Was there hand piecing in this particular object?

JF: No, I've always done the machine piecing.

PK: Do you do hand quilting for the quilts you give to donations?

JF: No, not generally.

PK: How do you put the layers together for those quilts?

JF: I machine quilt them.

PK: I see. Do you enter contests with your quilts?

JF: I have only entered one.

PK: Did you have to make a quilt to particular specifications?

JF: No. It was one that I had made for my husband. I had to give it a name. It was called "Syd's Sampler" because they were all different-sized blocks, even numbers- eight-inch, ten-inch, twelve-inch, fourteen-inch blocks. I got the idea from Judy Martin's Hundred and One Quilt Blocks or something like that. I used some variation of Ohio Star because that was state, he was born in. I used New York state block for the state I was born in. My three children were born in different states so that gave me--well, no we didn't use their states, we used their birth dates. So, there was a February block, a March block, and a Mayflowers block. Woven hearts represented my daughters' weddings. I combined card tricks and Judy's star to make a block because we both like to play bridge. I filled in the spaces with quarter square triangles or whatever fit the wider border. There was no rhyme or reason to it in the beginning, as to how I was going to lay it out. Then I discovered that oh my gosh, it was quite a problem. When I measured one way I would get one measurement, and over here, another one; I would think, well I have to put in another two-inch square or a sashing up here to fill in. Then the ten-inch block only measured nine and three quarters. [laughter.] I measured that thing I think for two weeks before I finally said well, we're just going to fudge it. I just kind of had to squeeze it in a little bit.

PK: How did you do with the contest?

JF: I won the blue ribbon.

PK: Congratulations.

JF: I think it was partly because of the size. It was a crib and lap size and there weren't many entries. [laughter.] A lot of people entered their queen- or full-sized quilts.

PK: I'm interested in the books you've been mentioning. How do get all of your ideas for quilts?

JF: There's a lot of books, the quilt magazines, going to quilt shows, and then lately I've been watching Alex Anderson on TV. At first, I thought she only came on Tuesdays and Fridays, in the afternoon. I discovered that no, you could watch her on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Then I learned it was every day of the week, two times a day. [laughter.] Now I plan my shopping trips around when I'm going to get home in time to see Alex. Some of the things that they show you may not want to do the whole project, but you find a little tip. Oh, yeah, that's right I should have cut those setting triangles in an X instead of doing a half triangle so the thing wouldn't be on the bias. Yeah, I knew that for bigger things, but I forgot about it for the little things. So, there's always something that reminds you.

PK: What are your favorite books? You have a favorite TV show.

JF: I don't think I have a favorite book. Lately I've been trying to expand my thinking in the projects to do more outside the box. I love it when the border isn't all just straight, but part of the quilt goes out into the border; a rabbit's ear is sticking up or something like that.

PK: Where do you get your fabrics?

JF: I start looking at Jo-Ann's, go up to Lancaster and my quilt friends in the neighborhood--sometimes we'll have a shopping excursion. We've got a pretty good route that we go--where we need to go for rest stops, where we plan to eat lunch, and then come home exhausted from all the thinking. Do I need it? Can I use it or am I just buying something because it's pretty? I do have one yard of fabric that was in the Hoffman challenge--I'm trying to think of how many years ago, two or three--the most gorgeous, to me, of yellows and reds and blues. I couldn't imagine even cutting it up. It's just there to look at and to pet. [laughter.] I didn't get to take a picture of the quilts that people had made out of that fabric, but when my friend went to Houston, I asked her if they were there to please take pictures of them. So, I have pictures of some of them. It's just absolutely amazing to me what it inspired other people to do with that fabric. It just blows your mind.

PK: Your inspiration, then, comes also from your fabric?

JF: Oh yes. That can be a jumping off place.

PK: How does that work?

JF: Well, you just see a fabric that you like, and you think, oh yes, I need that fabric. It hops right into your hands. I just say, 'What do you suppose I'm going to do with it?' Sometimes it may be--as in the recent quilt, the fabric with the darning needles--oh, yes this will work just great, and I'll find the fabrics to go with it. Sometimes you might have it for a couple of years and then decide that'll go great with what I'm looking for.

PK: What do you think makes a great quilt?

JF: Primarily the color arrangement. The colors are real important. The arrangement of the blocks, or sometimes it's the novelty of it. Or just some that you like better than others – a lot of it is personal, how it hits you.

PK: What about a great quilter? What makes a great quilter?

JF: Probably somebody who just enjoys doing it.

PK: And you enjoy doing it?

JF: Yes. What's pleasing about it to you?

JF: The process. The whole process: from planning the quilt to buying the fabric to cutting it into the pieces that you want, to putting them together and they come how they're supposed to. That you don't have to use a lot of fudge factors--oh yeah, it does fit this way. The joy of finishing it and being pleased with how it turns out.

PK: What's least pleasing?

JF: Least pleasing or tedious would be the layering up, but if you have a friend to do it with, it's sort of like a mini-quilting bee. You can talk and pin or baste together.

PK: Would you describe layering up for me?

JF: Okay. It's making a quilt sandwich, with the backing down, wrong side up, and hopefully it's a size bigger than the quilt. Choosing the batting that's another thing I didn't know as a beginner, that there are all different thicknesses and kinds of batting. Put that down to add a filler. Then putting the quilt top on and making sure that it's kind of lined up so it's not cattywampus on the backing.

PK: Why is this tedious?

JF: It's probably the least creative part. You have to have planned your hand quilting or machine quilting ahead of time so you know where the pins should go, so they won't be in the way.

PK: Won't be in the way of the quilting?

JF: Yes.

PK: I alluded to this before I'm going to visit it again, how do you feel about hand quilting and how do you feel about machine quilting?

JF: The machine quilting is faster, but the hand quilting is so enjoyable. It's a therapeutic activity. I sit in the evening and have my Ottlite™ light behind me and my chair with the legs that go up and just scrunch around to the right position with my hoop because I can only go in one direction. I'm impressed with the Amish ladies. They generally have their chair on wheels, I know. They can stitch sometimes with their left hand or their right hand; they'll go this way and that way. But I'd rather have it on the hoop and just flop it around in my lap.

PK: Do you have a special room where you sew?

JF: No. Well, my machine is in a room that my husband thought was going to be called the library--[laughter.] but, okay. So, the desk and a filing cabinet are on one side of the room and my sewing machine, and my ironing board and the bookcase are on the other side. It isn't a wonderful light for a studio but at least it's a light on the front of the house and I can see activity.

PK: So that's your sewing area. The chair where you quilt--where's that?

JF: That's in the den, so I can watch TV. Then down in the basement, where I have all my fabric, I also have a ping-pong table, which makes a wonderful, wonderful work area. My husband put it up on blocks so it's a better height for working and so that generally has a project and work or I'm auditioning fabrics or there's something going on at both ends of the table, generally.

PK: I like the phrase "auditioning fabrics." Tell me what that means.

JF: Well, you get out, say, twenty fabrics and you think, this one's good, not this one, this one's good, I don't know about that one, and you just--there's some where you just say, 'No way.' They're not for this project. The colors have got to be just right.

PK: That makes sense. Tell me, if you can, what does quilting mean to you?

JF: It's the most wonderful hobby. It keeps me out of trouble. [laughter.]

PK: What will happen to the quilts that you've made?

JF: Our children will probably get some. A lot have been given away as gifts. The first quilt for my queen-sized bed actually is hanging in the closet right now, because I made another one. I think I might, every few years, make another one for that bed. Whoever wants it will get it. Actually, I hadn't thought too much about who's going to get them. I kind of give them as I go along.

PK: Do you think quilting is important in American life?

JF: Oh, sure. It makes a wonderful hobby for so many people. It's a useful or a decorative item. It's an expression--a way for somebody to express themselves. It's kind of a fiber art, or fabric art.

PK: Do you think it's important to preserve quilts?

JF: Yes.

PK: Why?

JF: The real nice ones have--because it's part of our history. Just looking at older quilts you see the different colors and how the fabric prints have changed over the years. You look in the hard cover quilt books that are not patterns but stories about quilts and quilting. You think, wow, some of those are pretty and some of them are pretty ugly. That's because a lot of times they were using the scraps and not paying attention to color.

They were making something very necessary--a bed covering to keep somebody warm. So, they didn't pay much attention to the color sometimes, and other times they did.

PK: So, there are quilts that are expressive. How do quilts express self?

[pause for eight seconds.]

JF: Probably the color choices, the amount of detail in them. I'm flipping it back, but if you have a lot of time to spend on something, you can put more detail into it. If you're trying to just hurry and make a quilt to keep the hired man warm, then you would probably make bigger blocks and put it together faster.

PK: I see. About yourself, you're a member of a guild. Why did you join a guild?

JF: For expanded input, contact.

PK: And you enjoy being a member of a guild?

JF: Yes.

PK: What do you enjoy about it?

JF: Probably the meetings where we have a guest speaker that shows what kind of work, she's done.

PK: What else do you enjoy about being in a guild?

JF: Being able to share with friends.

PK: Do you have lots of quilting friendships?

JF: Quite a few.

PK: Quite a few. Do you spend a lot of time with other quilters, or do you quilt alone?

JF: Quilt alone. I don't like to take my machine to another spot.

PK: Do people do that?

JF: Yes.

PK: Sounds unwieldy.

JF: [laughing.] That's why I don't do it.

PK: What do you like about quilting alone?

JF: Well, because you can choose your time to do it and sometimes if you're in between cooking vegetables or whatever, you can at least get the bobbin wound. You just choose your time and alternate between an activity like walking for exercise to counteract the quieter activity of sewing.

PK: Do you define yourself as a quilter?

JF: Yes.

PK: You do. What does that mean to you?

JF: It's something that I really enjoy doing.

PK: Do you do other kinds of craft projects now?

JF: No.

PK: What other projects had you done before you came to quilting?

JF: Well, I tried a little bit of ceramics. I had tried macramé, sewing clothes.

PK: Do you still sew your clothes?

JF: No, I spend more time quilting.

PK: I see. Is there anything else that you'd like to tell me about yourself as a quilter or about quilting?

JF: I would just like to have an opportunity perhaps to make more people available to it. I had taught a few people the beginning steps in quilting to get them launched.

PK: How did they come to you for that information? How did they know?

JF: Somebody was dying to make a quilt and I said, 'Well, I'll help you get started if you want to be a guinea pig.' She was willing to be a guinea pig.

PK: You've taken classes, are you planning to take more?

JF: At this point, I'm just trying to try different techniques.

PK: Do you ever teach in classes?

JF: No, not formally.

PK: So, it was a one-on-one.

JF: Yes.

PK: That's very interesting. Do your daughters--all three of them, none of them quilt?

JF: No, in fact, one daughter will even give me buttons to sew back on her coats. [laughter.]

PK: Whoops.

JK: My oldest daughter has taken up stamping and that is her creative outlet right now. She doesn't have much time for anything else. My middle daughter has the more modern décor, plus the two small children. I gave my old sewing machine to my third daughter; I don't think she actually used it. Now she's busy with three children and in the process I borrowed it back when my newer machine broke and haven't returned it to her yet. [laughter.] It's handy in case of an emergency.

PK: You have one machine in operating order at any time?

JF: Mm-hmm.

PK: Not more than one? Sometimes people have more than one.

JF: Well, they're lucky.

PK: Is there anything else? Things I haven't touched on.

JF: I think we've covered quite a bit.

PK: I think we've covered quite a bit; I'm sure there's more to learn. Thank you very much, Judy.

JF: You're welcome.

PK: I appreciate this. I've been interviewing Judy Forbes at the Ladybug Guild's Q.S.O.S. training session, April 20th, 2002. My name is Pat Keller.



“Judy Forbes,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 21, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1602.