Donna Johnson




Donna Johnson




Donna Johnson


Suzanne Sanger

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics/United Notions


Naples, Florida


Suzanne Sanger


Suzanne Sanger [SS]: This is Suzanne Sanger. Today's date is April 25, 2005. It is 1:20 pm, and I'm conducting an interview with Donna Johnson for the Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories project and the Naples Quilters Guild at her home in Naples, Florida. Donna, tell me, were you living in Naples when you learned to quilt?

Donna Johnson [DJ]: No, not really. My quilting began in 1992 but I brought to quilting a sewing background.

SS: And you began quilting in Michigan then?

DJ: Right.

SS: Were you still teaching at that time?

DJ: No. I'd retired three years previously, and then I found quilting and that got me back into fabric, which is my love.

SS: I'm amazed. I would have bet you were a quilter from way back, because you're just such a wonderful quilter. Tell me about the quilt you've selected to talk about today. You made it.

DJ: Yes. I have several Mountain Mist patterns and this was always one that I thought I would like to do. This is a Mountain Mist Princess Feather variation. Now the story behind names, of course, is really interesting in at that time they had no copyright, and so one could either change the name because of where you lived, or change it because you really borrowed somebody else's idea and then modified it. In this case, the original pattern would be Prince's (male possessive) Feather, meaning the feather was from the ceremonial bonnet of the Prince of Wales. When Mountain Mist redid it for their pattern, and you remember that Mountain Mist used to put patterns on the inside of their wrappers to encourage you to buy them, they changed the name to Princess (female) Feather, not possessive, just female, so that's how it got its name. Okay, so I have several of these patterns and I had made a historical quilt, and I had lots and lots and lots of fabric, so I decided that I could make this quilt and use up all this historical fabric. On the feathers the fabric is never repeated twice, so that means I didn't use up a lot of material, and as I worked with it--these were these huge blocks, something like 26-28 inches square and these funny little things coming out of the center with nothing in them. As I began to make them, people would make comments like, 'Of all the things you've ever made, I like this least.' Or, 'I just don't like it,' were comments that were frequently made, and so I would come home and share that with my husband and he finally said, 'Well, I don't like it either.' So as I continued to work on it, I came about a fourth of an inch from never ever finishing. I'm a product person, so that means I kept digging away and digging away and digging away. I finally arrived at the point where I needed to add the little red, on point squares. At that point, that's all I copied from the Mountain Mist. The borders are mine. When I added the red, that began to gel the appearance a little bit and it looked like it was worth doing. I had no idea what to do with the borders so I just put it back for a while and let it sit and rest, hibernate or whatever. And then one day I was looking through a quilt magazine and here was this wonderful wall hanging. It had cabins and trees and stuff on it, and the outside border was Snail Trail. I said, 'This will work,' because the Snail Trail is a pieced version of the appliqué feather that I have in the middle, and so the colors that are in all the different feathers are then repeated in the outside border. I decided that I had used the tea-dyed background cotton and if I used a light, and a medium and a dark throughout that border, it would be just right. So I spaced my little red squares in my border so they would be farthest away from the red squares that went around each block I laid it out and I looked at it and I said, 'Huh.' I went to bed. The next morning I got up and the first thing I did was I went down and I stood at the end of this quilt and I said, 'What happens if I turn this around?' And I turned around two strips, one side and one end, and I said, 'This is it!' And that's how that happened.

SS: So it talked to you.

DJ: It talked to me again. ["Talked to me" is a term Donna often uses when making quilting design/color decisions.]

SS: That's wonderful. What a great story! And a picture of this quilt was published in a magazine, right?

DJ: Right.

SS: How did that come about?

DJ: Well, let's see. Mary Althaus of Naples Quilters Guild knew Debby Kartovil, who writes for Appliqué Quilts. Kartovil was working on a Kansas City Star quilt and she was putting it on a disk, and Mary said, 'I know a lady who has already done this quilt. You really need to see her quilt.' So Deb called me and Vern and I met Debra in Atlanta on the way down to Florida one fall, and I brought the quilt. It was the one with the Japanese vases and all the different flowers in them, but it had a distinct Oriental look. It was not a full-size quilt' mine is. So I brought that one plus I brought a couple of others. We met at a Starbucks somewhere off 495 and she saw my quilt and she said, 'Do you have any others?' So I pulled out this one and she salivated. Said, 'Oh my goodness, oh my gosh.' So then I submitted, I think, six or seven quilts as ones that they might be interested in. They had already decided they wanted the Princess Feather. So that became my centerfold. It was Appliqué Quilts, volume 41, Summer 2002.

SS: Do you have any other plans for this quilt or is it just part of your shifting repertoire?

DJ: Oh, I guess it's just part of my collection. As I had mentioned to you earlier, had I had my Dear Donna quilt with me here in Florida, that's an all appliqué quilt of six-inch blocks, I would probably have used that one for my favorite quilt. But this one, because it started so negatively and finished in such a high fashion, probably is a close runner up.

SS: Yes, this is a wonderful story. I don't know about Dear Donna, but this one is a wonderful story.

DJ: Oh, you don't know Dear Donna?

SS: Was it in the show down here in the last five years?

DJ: Yes, that was another Best of Show. Now, Princess Feather was Best of Show here and Dear Donna was Best of Show. I started making the blocks with Brenda Papadakis when she came to Naples and then I realized I was not nuts enough to piece all those pieces. My Dear Donna would be all appliqué. My blocks are six-inch blocks, but the appliqué is the same size as those four or 4 ½ inch blocks that Brenda worked, and then I added additional blocks that were of interest to me. Of over 100 blocks, 25 were Dear Janers. I used a half-inch strip for setting.

SS: So you designed many of the blocks.

DJ: They were either gathered from Better Homes & Gardens 501 or wherever I could find. I took some religious designs from an Easter bulletin and enlarged them. They were Palm Sunday and the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and Resurrection. And there's an apple/orange block that would be apples for Michigan and oranges for Florida and there's an apple because I was a teacher, and a bird that I made into a robin with a red chest because that's Michigan's state bird, and I made a heart wreath in commemoration or in remembrance of Ellie Sienkiewicz as it's her method of appliqué I like to do best with freezer paper on the top. So just for any reason that it happened to warm my heart, it was put into a little six-inch block.

SS: And did you put the triangle border on that one?

DJ: No, I selected two borders. A book named "Animous" was my source for the vine.

SS: I'm not familiar with that.

DJ: The first border was a meandering vine with leaves and it's all one piece. There are no separate leaves on the vine. And then my outside border on that one is called Interlocking. The quilt top as it finished is a given size and my last border, the Interlocking, was a given size. When you have an Interlocking border and you're using two different colors (alternating colors), you can't just take out an inch here or there. You have to take out a whole unit, so that came out as a specific size. And then, my little border that I was telling you about had to be inserted to fit the top and the outside border. In this case, the vine border sewn on three different times in order to get it correct. An exciting thing about that quilt was that was shown at Vermont when all the Dear Jane quilts were displayed at Vermont. Who do we know who did a Dear Jane here?

SS: Gail [Stewart.]--

DJ: I don't believe, maybe Gail's was there. There was another one. Was it Mary Althaus? Was it--

SS: It might have been Linda Franz. Did she ever do a straight Dear Jane?

DJ: I believe she did. But anyway, there were either two or three Naples ladies. We had a private Dear Jane groupie showing one night after the show. Everybody working on a "Janer" went on stage, and here I am with my top and my two borders in different stages of undoneness.

SS: Oh, it wasn't finished yet.

DJ: And so I have a label on the back of it today that says it was displayed at the Vermont Quilt Show, Show and Tell.

SS: Is that the only national quilt show that you've had a quilt in, or have you entered others?

DJ: It was not in the show proper just Show and Tell. The only national quilt show. No, I hung at Silver Dollar City in Branson. That was the very first time I ever put a quilt in a show, and that was early on maybe '93, '94. It was a Baltimore Album quilt, and the lady that returned the quilt was extremely complimentary. She kept saying, 'You have the skills. You just need to be perfecting some of the techniques that need to go in a quilt.' And then, with the encouragement of Anita Shackleford--Anita, of course, does a lot of appliqué teaching--I hung at NQA when it was in Grand Rapids. I can't tell you that year, but it hung.

SS: That's really exciting.

DJ: That NQA was a different quilt. It was a collection of garden related blocks from a variety of sources. February 1997 was the very first year I entered a quilt here in Naples. It took Viewer's Choice.

SS: Wow. We need to kind of move along in this interview, but that's been so interesting. We've talked a little bit about your interest in quilting and the fact that you started after you retired. Are you self-taught, or did you learn your initial quilting skills from some particular source?

DJ: I've taken most every class that comes along. The last few years I've taken fewer classes because I had other things that I thought were more important than that particular class, but I avail myself of classes and teachers.

SS: Is there a particular class that you think was especially beneficial that you took?

DJ: I guess my basic belief is that whatever class you take, you're going to go home with at least one good usable idea, and that makes up the price of the class. I have had classes with Ellie Sienkiewicz on three different occasions and probably I would consider her the most influential. Anita Shackleford would be right up there, Pat Campbell. I am enrolled in a class with Nancy Pearson in Denver in May 2005 at the Appliqué Society conference. I am hanging Lisa's 20th Anniversary quilt there as well, in the dinner show.

SS: And most of these classes were they at the Naples guild and your Michigan guild or were they elsewhere?

DJ: A combination. The three-day class with Ellie Sienkiewicz was at the Terrace Inn at Bayview in Michigan. The 40th Anniversary wall hanging was a result of this class.

SS: Wow. What a great class that must have been.

DJ: I have also had classes with Jeanna Kimball. Jeanna's technique is the milliner's needle, and the last morning that we were together she spent fifteen or twenty minutes and sat with you while you worked, and we decided that I did better work with a shorter needle rather than a longer needle. I thought this was really very open for a teacher to say, 'Go back and do what you were doing because you do better work that way than you are my way.'

SS: That's very interesting. How neat. Donna, you make so many quilts. How many hours a week do you think you quilt?

DJ: I don't know.

SS: Do you quilt every day?

DJ: A good day, I get some quilting done, but of course there are days here and there that I don't. I'm an intense person and I'm a product person and both of those drive me to work and finish.

SS: Do you quilt more during the day or in the evening or both?

DJ: Well certainly from suppertime on is quilting. But then during the day is whatever I choose. Here in Florida on Mondays I go to open quilting and Thursdays we have a bee with a brown bag lunch, so those days are quilting days.

SS: Those days are good days.

DJ: Yes, those are very good days.

SS: What's your first quilt memory? Did someone in your family quilt?

DJ: I guess Mother quilted, but I can't honestly remember seeing her do it. My paternal grandmother Eisenhauer gave Vern and I an unfinished top for a wedding gift, which Mother then helped me to back, batt and machine quilt. We wore that one to shreds. In fact I've purchased fabrics hoping that they belong to the right vintage and I can restore a few of the ones that are in bad shape. It's basically a working quilt. It's out of her aprons and whatever else, you know? The intent was always functional.

SS: You say that almost all of your quilts are working quilts--your bed size quilts anyway.

DJ: Yes. I don't know it just seems like wall quilts don't have any use, any really practical use, and if it's a bed quilt someone can make use of it is my mindset.

SS: Has quilting impacted your family? Now, you didn't start until you retired, but--

DJ: Yes, I'd say quilting has impacted my family. My husband does dishes so I can quilt.

SS: Oh, bless his heart!

DJ: [both laugh.] And in the evening, he will almost always say, 'I'll do dishes. You go quilt.'

SS: Oh, what a lovely man!

DJ: He's been extremely supportive in getting me to quilt shops when we go traveling. We haven't traveled so much in the last nine years. Since we've had the two houses we haven't traveled so much, but he's helpful. The last few years we've been doing a few trunk shows, and he loves that.

SS: Oh really? So you go around to different guilds and show your quilts?

DJ: Well, since we moved to Monroe, I did a trunk show, and then there was a neighborhood group that wanted a trunk show, and then there was another, my brother's town has a farm museum and in August and September they have a quilt show, and so that's been a trunk show.

SS: That's fun. I didn't know you were doing that.

DJ: And we did it for the Michigan Association of Retired School Personnel (MARSP) in April 2005. Pat Osmond, Walt, Vern and I together did it. The guys did the work and we did the talking. It was warmly received. We announced beforehand that we were going to do it and if you had something that you wanted to know about, bring it along and we'd talk with you about it and that was very warmly received.

SS: I'll bet that was a wonderful program. Have you ever used quilting to get through a hard time?

DJ: Yes. Emphatically yes. With no further details, yes. It is a good psychologist, psychiatrist. [both laugh.] Another thing that really annoys me is not being ready when the time is set to go. If I can quilt, that doesn't hassle me. I can wait patiently because something's happening.

SS: Very good. What's your favorite thing about quilting?

DJ: Too hard. Too hard a question.

SS: Too many things are favorites?

DJ: If I had to pick one only it would be the design that is created when you hand quilt. For instance, the one that I showed here, that has some details in it, one of them being the escallop--

SS: This is the Princess Feather.

DJ: This is the Princess Feather. There's an escallop at the end of the patch in the blocks because those blocks meet another line where the lines would not line up but the escallop separates it. And then there was a strange shape that was created that made it poufy and uncomfortable and so I went through and added another line within that escallop, which ends up being a very interesting design. You know, it's like, 'Oh, this is interesting.' When you see it, it's 'Oh.' I seem to like color. I don't feel like I'm good, but I keep getting told, 'Your color is unique. Your colors are good,' so there's something and I cannot explain to you why. I do try to keep in mind large, medium, small; dark, light--a little bit.

SS: Well, your quilts are always beautiful. Are there any aspects of quilting you don't enjoy?

DJ: Paper piecing.

SS: [laughs.] Are there any aspects that you do that you don't enjoy?

DJ: Paper piecing.

SS: Oh, you do do paper piecing. Okay. I thought you were like me and dodged it.

DJ: I do it when I have to do it. My quilts are always stretched on stretcher bars too. When I'm basting they are always stretched. I don't do this tabletop thing and I don't do adhesive spray.

SS: So when you're sandwiching a bed-size quilt, you've got stretcher bars that big? And what do you do, staple it around them?

DJ: Well, if I'm doing them here in this living room, we use three stepladders and the corner of the sofa. I have pictures. I've used the back of the chairs on the porch. When it's a bad day or too hot a day, we've done them here [inside.].

SS: Really.

DJ: I have pictures that prove that this is really what we do.

SS: I would love to see the pictures sometime because that sounds interesting.

DJ: Anyway, at Golden Gate I have the stretcher bars and the C-clamps and everything needed and everybody knows that if they want to use them we do them there. That works nicely because we set them on the tables and then we put the 12 or 14 inch PVC pipe extenders on the legs to lift them up and it's very comfortable working. We can do a quilt in a day--in a morning, maybe one o'clock. Nine o'clock to one o'clock or whatever. That's one of the little fellowship things we have that goes on at Golden Gate.

SS: That's really nice. We've already talked about you entering your quilts in shows, and I know you enter heavily in Naples and also in Michigan. What do you think you learn from entering your quilts in a show?

DJ: Hopefully, how to be a better quilter. I suppose the mitered corners that are stitched shut. What are judge's usual comments? Straight edges so that means that I would use my very largest square and I would set my corners and I would run straight lines from those corners on through.

SS: So you've learned to really care about the details and the finishing through judge's commentary. Is that what I'm hearing?

DJ: Sure. Yes, definitely. I am challenged to improve.

SS: It's hard to improve on perfection, Donna.

DJ: Oh gosh. Don't say that. Now I've lost my train of thought, and it was important, that I tell you, but that's okay. If it's really important, it'll come back to me.

SS: Well, we'll give you a chance to come back to it later and I'll even insert it. If no one were going to see your quilts, would you still do it?

DJ: Sure. Maybe, I don't know. Maybe not with quite the depth that I do it. I don't know.

SS: That's interesting.

DJ: At this point I've got so much material, and my whole philosophy is I want to die with the most quilts done.

SS: Aha!

DJ: I don't want to die with the most material because material isn't anything. But a quilt has value, so the grandchildren have quilts and the daughters and the sons--well the son doesn't really have quilts. (Too many marriages.) But he has asked for one now, so that will be this summer. Your question again? Keep me back on track.

SS: The question was if no one were going to see your quilts, would you still make them?

DJ: Oh yes, I would still make them. However, probably the competition because I do think sometimes, not always--it's not important that I make something that goes in the show, but I might think I don't have something in this category so this would be good to do that style at this time.

SS: Do you find that while you are working, you are always mindful of what the judge is going to say about--

DJ: Ah! I remember what I was going to tell you. There are some quilts that if I didn't win any award, it wouldn't make any difference because in my heart they are what I wanted that one to be, so, yet there are times that I give thought to it and there are times that say, 'Oh well, this is the way it is.' But I don't hesitate after I've done something if for some reason it's not done, like remember I told you when I worked on the Princess Feather there were puffy spots that weren't right? I don't hesitate to go back and make it look better for my own self. In fact, that one might be one that I entered it in a show and felt the last border was a little wibbly-wobbly and I went through and did some horizontal quilting in the outside-outside border, a plain tea dyed one, I added a line all the way through and it hangs just as flat as could be. So I did it because it was more correct for me.

SS: What do you think makes a great quilt? Yours or somebody else's.

DJ: Something you like and something that challenges you.

SS: I love that. That's great.

DJ: Okay, sometimes you have a reason. The Arrowroot quilt that I did is usually done in reds, golds, and of course, the green for the little sprig, and I did it in blue because I had a fairly extensive blue collection from which I had never made anything. And then I told you I did this Princess Feather to use up fabric. And then the Bethlehem Star, that was made for two reasons only. Can I make a flat center with a 45° cut, and [laughing.] can I use up that historical material? No, you can't use up the historical material.

SS: You've still got it, huh? What makes a quilt artistically powerful in your opinion?

DJ: I don't know? Color? I seem to like bright colors. I am a winter so I like bright colors, and that seems to be reflected in my quilts. I stay away from kits because I always have fabric that I think I could use, so maybe it's color.

SS: What do you think makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection?

DJ: Uniqueness and it could be design, the purpose for which the quilter made it, the quality of her workmanship, I guess that's it.

SS: And what makes a great quilter?

DJ: Somebody with an open mind, open to what has happened in the past and what she likes to do, and what is available that will increase her scope of understanding and appreciation for what is being done.

SS: How do great quilters learn the art of quilting, especially how to design a pattern or choose fabrics and colors?

DJ: That's got too many parts, girl.

SS: Okay, let's back up. [laughs.] How do great quilters learn the art of quilting?

DJ: I guess there's lots of ways. You either do it because you want to or it was modeled for you, or, I bring the love of fabric from a clothing background to the quilting format, and certainly that gives me a running start. However, this business of what goes with what in a clothing situation is far different that what you can get away with in a quilting situation.

SS: How do you choose fabrics and colors?

DJ: I go to my drawer. [laughs.] And I open the drawer, and I look. I like to do traditional quilts in surprise fabrics. Marty Dowman has an old Rose Tree that has a traditional background, but if I do that, I want to do it on a beige printed background instead of doing the red and green on the all white background. I would want to do something different just to do it. Sometimes I want to reproduce in likeness, but if I did that one, see, that's one of those things that's kind of unfinished business for me.

SS: Do you ever design you own patterns? You do sometimes.

DJ: Well, what do you mean, design a pattern?

SS: Well yes, what do I mean?

DJ: My response to you, is the Princess Feather a "designed quilt" because I added that border to it? Then, okay, the Dear Donna, my version of the Dear Jane. I collected those patterns. Some of them I actually designed because they were simple to do, but I added a border that wasn't there--two borders that weren't there. Does that make it my design that would be considered mine? All were adapted as I seldom copy a pattern.

SS: When you do that, are there principles that guide you or is it just instinctive?

DJ: What to put there? I sit there and somehow it talks to me, and it says this seems to be the right kind of design for this. If it's undulating, it's important to me to be in an even pattern.

SS: Donna, what does quilting teach you?

DJ: Patience?

SS: [laughs.] Everybody says patience.

DJ: Well, that's the thing everybody always says, 'You must have so much patience.' But in the process of creating, it's such a natural part of it.

SS: I know I never feel that it requires patience. It's something that I'm always going to be doing, so it doesn't matter how long it takes.

DJ: That's right. And Vern's comment is, 'So you finished a quilt. It'll be the same tomorrow. You'll be working with the same intensity on something else.' And that's right. But what does it teach you? What does it get me? Lots of friends. I think quilting people are the nicest friends.

SS: I agree. How do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting?

DJ: They both have their place. I am pleased that I can hand quilt. It is unique, and it's an art that is dying, so I am glad that I can do it. I have no hesitation with combining hand and machine together. Usually the handwork winds up being around appliqué and perhaps the center and then the border tends to be machine. I am not a good machine quilter. I am a geometric quilter, not a free motion quilter. Then we get into long arm. I guess I would be opposed to if you take a template and you set up even on a home machine.

SS: For what reason? Explain that a little more.

DJ: Well, because I don't think it's an expression of the person's work in the same way as it would be if she creatively filled the space with her own design. And then there's the long arm jobs, of course the pantograph I have no need for, and the custom work is another expression of somebody's art ability, but whatever rules you have for hand quilting you need to apply to machine quilting and then they're equal.

SS: Why is quilting important to your life?

DJ: I guess because I like fabric and this is an extension of liking fabric, and it uses time when I have to wait. [laughs.] People enjoy what I do. They enjoy receiving what I have done. I'm getting a little more to the point where I make things to give to people because they are special in my life.

SS: In what ways do your quilts reflect your community or region? Now you have two communities and regions.

DJ: Well certainly Florida Fantasy, the strip quilt thing we tried, would represent region. This was a winter season class project to create a quilt in strip format explaining what being in Florida means to you.

SS: In general do you think your quilts reflect your region or not?

DJ: That's so hard to say. I suppose color choices would be reflected.

SS: Do you find you choose different colors if you're quilting in Florida than if you are in Michigan at that stage.

DJ: Or if I picked a Florida design. Okay, let's say that I'm doing a heron or a flamingo or something like that; certainly the colors would go in that regard.

SS: What if it were a traditional type quilt? I think the light is so different in Florida than it is in Michigan and I react to colors differently.

DJ: I guess so. I guess I hadn't thought of it in that regard, but there are some fabrics that I leave here because I consider them to be Florida. Peach and aqua I wouldn't use in Michigan.

SS: What do you think about the importance of quilts in American life?

DJ: It definitely tells the story of women. Whatever has happened, you know. Like the diary where the lady says, 'I still have my needle.' She's on the wagon train going out west, and I'm sure that the lives of women are told through quilts, and hopefully our generation of quilters has done a better job of putting labels on so we don't have to guess where they came from and maybe why they were made and for what purpose.

SS: How do you think quilts can be used or should be used?

DJ: Well I have used them for wall hangings, and a few are framed like in a shadow box situation, placemats, table runners, beds, as a throw for a little warmth here and there. Certainly large quilts, if you have the space, could be used as wall hangings as well.

SS: How do you think quilts and the art of quilting can be preserved for the future?

DJ: I suppose if we avail ourselves of what was done and what is being done and document what we do we are preserving it. I know that the whole thing in quilting now seems to be, get it done and get it done in a hurry so I would like for those people to hand quilt now and then. [phone rings. tape is stopped and restarted.]

SS: Donna, just this past season you taught a comprehensive quilting class for our guild. I'd like to hear a little more about that in terms of what were your goals, and what you taught, and what you learned from that class.

DJ: I have toyed for the last two or three years about the fact that it seemed like the guild needed just a fun activity that involved quilts and involved the person expressing themselves, so I came up with the idea that maybe the strip quilt was a format for that. We were in Orlando with Deb Dugdale and Helga [Schoennagel.] and Peggy [Johnson.] and Pat [Osmond.] and I were all there together and I said, 'That's it. That quilt right there, that's the kind of quilt we want to do,' so on the sly and the QT we took a picture of this lady's quilt because she was publishing it and was going to come out with a pattern. I said, 'Helga could teach piecing and I would teach appliqué and Helga would teach something, and I would teach something.' And she said, 'I could do this,' so Helga became my partner. And then on the way home, Peg and Pat started brainstorming. What makes you think Florida? When you see it, you say, well that's Florida. And so we brainstormed from weather to nautical things, to bugs to birds to whatever else, and we had quite an extensive list. So we volunteered that we would do this and started at a meeting at the end of October 2004. The arrangement of the last Saturday was not good because we never could use the newsletter to share information about what was happening the next month because we were past deadline, so we had no effective tool for recruiting anybody new.

SS: That's a real shame.

DJ: We had a nice start. We decided that Ocean Waves was the first one and Helga was going to teach it and then Helga's mother was 90 or 89 or whatever so she went back to Germany, so that fell my lot to teach Ocean Waves. And then I had said that I would do appliqué, so now I'm teaching appliqué and we had, oh, six, seven, eight, nine people that showed up with some regularity and we also had scheduled with Golden Gate the second Monday of each month from noon until 2:30 so that any time that we needed more time we could have it.

[the tape runs out at this point without our noticing it. we resume as best we can.]

Our goal was to teach a new quilting technique every time we met, and we wanted the ladies to tell us what do you need next in order to finish the quilt the way you perceive it to be. What technique do you want? We were willing to do Celtic; we were willing to do whatever was needed, reverse machine appliqué or whatever. Everybody seemed to be going in a direction with which they were comfortable. This was a season of lots of health concerns for individuals and we missed a lot. I did not take attendance and I did not record the names of everybody we started with, but wouldn't you say there were seven or eight or so that showed quilts in April. Jane Pfender wasn't there and Tippi [Cavanaugh.] didn't show hers, so you'd add two to whatever was there, and those were basically the ladies that did it, but what unique things there were! You could barely tell we had shared techniques. They created marvelous quilts!

SS: Yes, seeing those, it was just wonderful to see them.

DJ: I didn't really get to see them, and they were in more of a doneness stage than I had seen before, and I really felt cheated that I didn't get to see them because here I am holding my own up, but Pat Osmond's were water wave shapes of strips, and then below those were strips that included the sand and the beach and the grass and so forth, and there were cutesy Burma Shave sayings, and what was Jane Pfender's name "Fishful Thinking." She had used a modernistic fish design, which she had created, and then the fish itself was strip pieced and different characters on it.

SS: Oh, hers was the one that the whole quilt was the shape of a fish.

DJ: Yes, it had the huge embellished hand made eye which she made puffed, and the lips, she trapuntoed those. Then Lois Monterosso's, all hers were paper pieced. Flamingos, Ocean Waves, and many more like Seminole story line characters. Tippi Cavanaugh's was entirely Mariner's Compass. They were just so unique, and they loved them. That's it; they loved what they had done. I guess that's all we wanted was for them to have fun and do something unique that stretched their previous experiences.

SS: Do feel that your Florida Fantasy piece stretched you?

DJ: Sure. I used all kinds of bright colors, like these here [indicating some nearby placemats], and I used seventeen different quilting techniques, and if you named each flower and each fish and each animal separately, there were 108 different topics addressed that are Florida related. And probably my most fun one was the beach scene, and the other one would be the hurricane ones where I had pulled off the Weather Channel the logo that they had created for the 2004 season because they retired the names of Charley and Frances and Ivan and Jeanne. And then you helped me develop my sheet for the hurricane and we did it reverse machine appliqué, which I'd never done before. Then the bright colors I used to go around the different blocks that were fabrics related to Florida I cut up in inch pieces, and this is the debris going around the hurricanes now. So you can see that the debris of what belongs to Florida was spinning around the hurricanes. I used two strips for each sashing, and the second one was an underwater scene where the seaweed and the fish were meandering in lines as the turbulence was upsetting the schools of fish and the seaweed. It was great. The strip with the alligators, a Canadian lady came visiting Ede Yeomans and she said, 'Oh, this is Alligator Alley,' so that's how Alligator Alley received its name, and I put it on the palm tree--the three-dimensional palm tree with the stuffed coconuts. I did appli-bond which I had really never done before and did edge stitching on that. Then we had the lighthouse and all the other topics and techniques.

SS: I've known you for maybe five or six years, and I've always thought of you as a supreme traditional quilter, and that quilt was very untraditional and very much your own work and I know you had at least one piece in the show this year that was much less traditional. Do you feel your attitudes or your feelings about traditional versus contemporary quilts have changed or do you see yourself at all differently than you were say five years ago as a quilter? And do you consider that a growth experience or just an experiment?

DJ: Your comment to me when we did rules for the quilt show was that I was a traditional quilter, and I bristled a bit. I thought, 'I can do anything!' [laughs.] So there has been a conscious effort to do something that would be considered, by hopefully you, as being non-traditional. And I think that's part of the growth that you owe yourself is trying something different, and as I said, in the past I took every class that came along because I would learn something different. Maybe I would learn to make a binding where it had two fabric sides. This matched the front side and that matched the backside. That was Carol Myers. But you go and you learn something new and use it wherever you can. So I've done colors, I've done the crayon-coloring thing, and I've done the red penny squares, red work, I did the primitive. In fact there was more than one that was untraditional for me this year. The Monsters was untraditional, and I used the bright colors. So yeah, it's just something that you try and experiment with and then you can add it to your repertoire.

SS: Very good. I certainly do think you have--I wouldn't call you a traditional quilter anymore. I'd call you an everything quilter. Do you have any future dreams or plans for yourself in working with quilts?

DJ: Just in a way, because I can do the traditional well, I probably will be doing traditional ones here and there. I want to do that Rose Tree one, and I have it might be a Mountain Mist, the poppy--the orange poppy. That's cut out in non-traditional fabrics, so that one will get looked at soon. Also, I am--what do I say, I'm not restoring. I'm undoing a kit quilt and redoing it. What was done was filled, stuffed with kapok.

SS: Eeuw.

DJ: Yes, it smelled that way when I got it, too. I've had it out here in the sun for days trying to get the smell out of it, and that to me is very important to do. The Dutch Sue that was a summer quilt with all the holes, and I redid that one. That was important to do. The Rocky Road to Kansas my daughter bought at a garage sale would not lay flat for love nor money. It was stitched with orange polyester thread, and the outside border was seersucker, blue and white seersucker, and white muslin.

SS: It sounds like a nightmare. What possesses you to even want to take the time to, what are you doing, restoring that one?

DJ: That was a restored one, and it's beautiful.

SS: Really.

DJ: I did not mend it a lot.

SS: So the basics were there.

DJ: The basic quilt was there, so the integrity of the lady's work is there, but I took the outside borders off and put a flat border on and quilted it--limited amount of hand quilting on it. It's a wonderful quilt, and they love it.

SS: Oh good.

DJ: You know, it's just like there are so many undone things that I want to do. I have notebooks full of things and I just start them.

SS: So many quilts, so little time.

DJ: Yes. I do from twelve to fifteen quilts in a year. Now that doesn't mean they are all bed size.

SS: No, but still, that's a remarkable output.

DJ: It's just I like it.

SS: Donna, we've finished with our questions. Is there anything you would like to add, anything we didn't discuss we didn't include, or anything you would like to go back to?

DJ: I guess not really. I have been blessed with a good deal of recognition for the ones that I have done.

SS: You have. Well earned.

DJ: I am aware that it is a gift that I have been given that I need to be appreciative of, and that's why I try to give some, that's one of the reasons for myself that I wanted to do the strip quilt class. [phone rings. tape is stopped briefly.] I help out individuals make available stretchers for basting, and volunteer at show time and on National Quilt Day I share my skills.

SS: I'd like to thank Donna Johnson for allowing me to interview her today as part of the Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories project. Our interview concluded at 2:30 p.m., April 25, 2005.


“Donna Johnson,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 21, 2024,