Judy Shapiro




Judy Shapiro




Judy Shapiro


Le Rowell

Interview Date


Interview sponsor



Bethesda, Maryland


Le Rowell


[This is a demonstration interview with Judy Shapiro at the Chesapeake & Potomac Appliqué Quilters evening meeting where Le Rowell gave a Q.S.O.S. presentation.]

Le Rowell (LR): This is Le Rowell and today's date is March 5, 2003. It is 8:15 p.m. and I'm conducting an interview with Judy Shapiro for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project, a project of The Alliance for American Quilts. We are in the Senior Citizens Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Judy, tell me about the quilt that you brought.

Judy Shapiro (JS): Well, this is my touchstone piece because it probably is the most important quilt to me. I've been quilting for eighteen years now, I guess, but this particularly because it was made for my family and my close friends; and I look at it as sort of a meditation of sorts on the people for whom I've constructed this quilt. I have identified my group in this particular block. Every Thursday morning five of us get together at each other's houses and we gather together and quilt and do various projects, get into trouble, eat too much. And they're certainly the underpinning of my life and of my quilt. This has been a very happy quilt in many ways, but it also documents some very upsetting issues in my life; but it has been a way for me of making passages through both good and bad times.

LR: Can you describe the square you were talking about?

JS: Sure. This is where Eleanor comes in [laugh.]. There are four names on this quilt, Eleanor Ballaban, and these are in alphabetical order, Judy Banks and Anne Connery, Judy Shapiro, and the one that came late and is not on the block is Berta Murray. It has a morning glory on it, and I have listened to Anne Connery tell stories of her grandmother and her grandmother's property and how the blue morning glories grew across her lawn; and in fact when she went to Edenton [North Carolina.] this past year I think it was, she went back to the property and saw morning glories growing on the property. Eleanor is actually represented in the basket itself because Eleanor tends to use a lot of black backgrounds. So-- [there is an inaudible comment from someone in the audience from the Chesapeake & Potomac Appliqué group and Judy laughs.] So, therefore, I sort of changed the design of the bowl and tried to make it look a little bit like wrought iron using the black which represents how I think of Eleanor. Eleanor always does things a little bit differently and she's very interesting and interested. So I wanted to do something that sort of stood out a little bit for her. Judy, I kind of see in the pink roses and the tulips. She's a wonderful, wonderful friend and they're just colors that I associate with Judy more than anything. It actually reads, 'Friendship Thursday Morning Ouilters'--very important block in my quilt.

LR: What about the sailing ship in the center?

JS: That's known as the Clipper Ship and it is the center of my quilt because it's representative--the ship is representative of the church itself, and there are four names on the sailing ship block. There are four generations of women who have belonged to my church which is Chevy Chase United Methodist Church [Chevy Chase, Maryland.] so my grandmother's name and the date that she joined Chevy Chase, my mother's name and the date that she joined, myself and my daughter are all represented on this block. The tulips are a little bit of a variation but they're actually Maryland colors. The flags themselves are Norwegian and Swedish which is my background. My daughter is Norwegian. The Swede is represented by the blue and gold and, of course, the American flag on the stern.

LR: Talk about the fabrics that you used in that square.

JS: Actually I used some ultra suede which I really love. It's expensive but you don't have to turn it and I think it's wonderful for making these silly roses with little holes in them. I've used some fabric for the sails that sort of looks like linen and certainly some hand dyed batik fabrics made by Hoffman. I thought they looked like good wood representations, and I embroidered the flags. They were so small I didn't really want to appliqué them so embroidery worked for me, it was much faster.

LR: You mentioned some upsetting issues. Would you like to talk [laugh.] about any of those?

JS: I won't cry if I don't talk about Toni, so we'll go to 9/11. This is a block that I actually designed on September 18th of 2001. Anne Connery and I were quilting in Ripley, West Virginia on 9/11. We received the news quite late. We didn't have televisions and someone came into the room, having gone back to her room and receiving the news, and I think it was almost eleven o'clock, wasn't it, before we actually got the news. We actually went back to our room, called our families, they were all okay and then we went back to the studio. I was taking a class with David Walker who is a former priest, wonderful spiritual kind of guy and I think he was really--I think God sent me to David Walker's class for that reason because we all just sort of got together and worked into the night actually, very late. I remember that night we worked. That Saturday I was supposed to go to a wedding in New York and didn't quite know what to do, but we decided to go ahead and go to the wedding and it was fine, everything was quite calm. But when I came back I couldn't sit down. I couldn't watch television. My hands generally move all the time but I really felt the need to focus. And so for three days I stayed up and I designed this block which is, in fact, lilies of mourning and forget-me-nots in a lyre, and the two buildings are lifted up on a blue eagle with an American flag hanging overhead. And when I was about to finish the block I started to put a Phrygian cap [a soft, conical cap represented in ancient Greek art and associated, since late 18th and early 19th centuries, with the liberty cap.] in the eagle's mouth and my husband looked at me and he said, 'What about a fireman's hat?' And my husband who is the Jewish atheist, turned Jewish agnostic, finally was the one who gave me the scripture which he knows very well having been to Quaker College and that was 'peace that passeth understanding' with the date. So I was quite delighted that he was really involved in the making of this block. I think it served him emotionally as well as me. I think I finished that Friday afternoon and I needed a banner for church somehow. So I went to my fabric stash and I created a big huge eagle that's probably about forty inches wide with red and white stripes coming down and it had kind of a gradated field of blue in the back; and I hung it in church that Sunday and a man came up to me and he offered me $20,000 for that banner and I said, 'No, this is made for the church' and he said, 'Well, you know, you really could send this money to relief.' And I resisted it because I just felt that people needed to kind of gather it and have that visual image. But it was a nice offer. [laughs.]

LR: Are there any other squares that you would like to talk about particularly.

JS: There's one that I actually haven't discussed a whole lot and that is this damned heart that I taught today [laughs.] at Cotton Seed Glory. I had such a tough time doing this block I found it so boring. And what I said to my students today was that Elly had told me that in doing this block, 'When you find something boring, think of it as candy, and that is that you wouldn't be able to sit next to a dish of candy and eat just one. And think of the fabric that this reverse appliqué reveals underneath'. It really did help me an awful lot. So I've now made four of these blocks. The meaning of this block is very close to my heart because we had a family issue very early on in my family and that was my father was a bigamist, and I did not know him until I was twenty-seven years old and it was not--it was a difficult meeting. But when he finally died, or was about to die, he called my father who had adopted me, and he just said, 'Thank you so much for taking such good care of Judy'. And my dad called and said, 'Bill is dying. You need to get to the hospital and you need to see him before he goes'. This was the only block that really suited our relationship because the hands as they're represented in the pattern don't touch, but in the end we did touch in a funny sort of way. So that's a very important block in my quilt, and so hard to get down and do. [laugh.]

LR: What are your plans for this quilt?

JS: Well, it's a legacy. It's called "Legacy of Love" and it's a legacy for my daughter. I only have one daughter and two step daughters who could care less about quilts. But when we did Appliqué-by-the-Bay [a quilting seminar on the Chesapeake Bay.], Ann was giving a lecture, Anne Connery, and Elly turned to me and she said, 'Judy, look at your daughter. I saw her get it and the tears were just streaming down her face'. So when we came back she said, 'You know Dad-- for this to be really my quilt Dad has to be in the quilt, so would you make a block for him'. So I made him a simple block anyhow, and the block actually resides next to my marriage block to Bert [laughs.]. And Bert's not very comfortable with that. [comment from the audience to which Judy replied, 'Good idea'.]

LR: Talk a minute about your involvement in quilting, your teaching and your artist-in-residence at Wesley [Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.].

JS: Okay. I do teach but I'm sort of scaling down. I'm only teaching at Cotton Seed Glory. Most of my classes tend to be sort of inspirational and spiritually directed classes. Within two semesters I had eighty students at Wesley Seminary which was quite a heavy load since we were expected to only have four students per semester. So I thought that I was going into this position and I was going to get a great deal done. But the lesson of this was that it was really about the people. You know as quilters we think it's really about our small involvements in a small group like this. But when you're in a position where you can really affect women who can then take these skills and perceive the sisterhood that exists in these groups, it's a wonderful thing to be able to facilitate them to go out into their churches where they'll be stationed, or some of them are stationed, and really facilitate these women and to listen to the stories and for the women to bond together so that the responsibility isn't really all on the minister, they begin to minister to each other; and I think they found that this is a really effective tool, and a lot of the pastors who have churches who were my students within the last couple of semesters have actually started quilting programs that are very successful. They're not all doing Baltimore Album quilts. A lot of them are doing banners. A lot of them are doing baby quilts. A lot of them are doing homeless quilts, but it really is all the same and hopefully they'll find a sisterhood that I think exists in this. But teaching was truly a wonderful experience and I really enjoy it, but I'm in a production mode right now [laugh.].

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

JS: Yes, actually there was just a profile--Professional Quilter [a national magazine.]--just did a two page article, I guess, on spiritual quilting; and I had met a women at Friendship Star Quilt Guild [in Gaithersburg, Maryland.]where I actually said that I'm not politically correct, that if I used the word Jesus Christ, don't be offended please because this is where my work comes from, this is my strength, my underlying strength. And there were about thirty-five people after the meeting who came up and said, 'I'm really glad that you said that you're not politically correct and where you come from'. And apparently there was a woman in the crowd who was writing an article on spiritual quilters; and she asked to do an interview, so we met at the National Cathedral [in Washington, D.C.] and I have banners down there, most of you have seen those. And then she came to my studio at Wesley and took some pictures and they published a profile of Judy Shapiro which was pretty exciting.

LR: Do you collect sewing or quilting memorabilia?

JS: I collect fabric [laughs.]

LR: Fabric.

JS: But not as much as my friend Anne here. Gosh, Actually I have quite a collection of old sewing machines. I have a Russian sewing machine, that's one that I bought in the northwest on Whidbey Island. Apparently people who have sailboats up there are interested in these old cranked sewing machines, and I saw one, had to have it and Bert said, 'No, you can't bring it back in a suitcase', and I said, 'Yeah, but I can mail it' [laugh.]. So I kind of collected machines from everywhere. I have one in my kitchen. It's a treadle machine that we found in a shop in Taneytown [Maryland.] with a complete documentation of a woman's marriage and how she had used her sewing machine; and it was complete with all the bobbins and all the directions, and I don't take it out very long but I think it's a nice presence. It's a very good mail holder, too. But I do have an awful lot of sewing machines in my storage room, not to mention the [inaudible.] collection.

LR: Judy, in what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history and experience in America?

JS: I think they really follow the cultural thread and fiber. I gave a lecture last Monday night and I was really taken with a quilter who has been interested in the symbolism of slave quilts. And knowing that I was giving this lecture and how heavily symbolic the Baltimore Album quilts are, I thought, 'Gee, that would really be a great contrast because these quilts'--I hadn't really thought about this--were being made between 1820 and 1840 which is when people were thinking about these beautiful symbols. And there was such a strong contrast and such a strong--gosh, their quilts were for survival. Not only were they bed quilts but they were directional quilts; they actually gave messages which would carry people to freedom. And when I look at these quilts these were kind of upper middle class women who had the time because these people were working for them. So I thought that this was just a wonderful contrast. I really think so many times we see, for instance, the Baltimore Album was a very short genre because in fact we got into a technical age where sewing machines came in with the Howe sewing machine and, you know, Civil War time. Quilts had to become much quicker, much more utilitarian at that point and as we go through time we see the political influences of quilts, and in fact in these quilts political and spiritual influences are very strong. So it really does follow along the culture, the war lines I think are very important, religious lines. It's very interesting.

LR: Talk about a special quilt that you found recently.

JS: Last Monday night I was giving a lecture at Asbury Methodist Village [a place for senior living in Montgomery County, Maryland.], and my parents live at Asbury Methodist Village. About three years ago I was going to the president's office [at Asbury Village.] because he kind of had it in his head that he wanted ten quilts lining this very long chapel as a sound baffle, and had a meeting; but on my way to the meeting there was a room with a glass window and it was locked up and I was going with a friend who is kind of a bulldozer sort, and she was trucking along and I said, 'Vivian, stop, wait'. And what I saw was a roller print and just a little bit of turkey red and maybe a little bit of green and I went, 'Vivian, I think, you know, I have my suspicions'. Well, she didn't have time for quilts so we went to the meeting; and for about three years I've been talking to my friend, Anne Connery, and trying to get my mother to see if she could somehow get this quilt out of this storage room because it was kind of balled up and it was mashed in between furniture that had been left to the Asbury Foundation. So when this woman, Lee Bachrach called to ask me about dinner plans before my talk, I sensed that she was a very strong person and so I said, 'So, Lee, would you see what you could do about getting that appliqué quilt out of the storage room?' Well, by God, it showed up the night before the talk, she called me and she said, 'I have your quilt. Do you want to look at it when you get to Asbury or do you just want to open it?' Well, we went for wine before dinner, before the talk, and she said, 'Would you like to look at the quilt?' and I said, 'Sure' and, my husband was with me; and so we opened this plastic bag no less--and they had just put it in a plastic bag--so we opened this plastic bag and my husband says, 'Oh, my God, it's a goose girl'. There was a goose girl block right in the center of it, and we knew instantly, and it was marked 1849--some of the blocks were 1849 and some of the blocks were 1850, beautiful condition, but one of these old gals said, 'We've got to take this to the dry cleaner right away. It has spots on it'. And I went, 'No'. [loud laughs.] So they were enchanted when they found out how much it might be worth and we still don't know but it is an--[more comments and laughs from the audience in the background.], but it is an important quilt. I wrote a letter to the president, kind of my wish list for this quilt, and they have given me the opportunity to make the patterns and photograph it. And I do have pictures here on my computer. But first of all I broke it down and I said, 'There are really three important issues with this quilt. First of all it's a textile history. Secondly it's a Methodist and woman's history'--and as I said in my item number two--I said, 'This is the Methodist of Methodist quilts'. There is a representation of John Wesley and it is labeled John Wesley with scripture written into it. I've never seen another one with John Wesley in it. So obviously I was very excited about it. There are also angels which are pretty rare in the Baltimore Album quilts, and the roller print is absolutely gorgeous. It's in fabulous, fabulous condition. What I did notice was, and we've all observed this, those of us who do Baltimore Album quilts, is that they were not as fussy as we are sometimes; and when we actually measured blocks some of them were as big as eighteen inches and some of them as small as sixteen inches, but somehow they compensated. But it's still--when you look at the pictures, it is a smashing photo. My third point to them was that this is of significant financial value to the institution and it needed to be curated and properly cared for. So I hope they listen and I'm kind of hoping this will set up a dialogue with them so that it'll be treated the way it really needs to be treated. But when I came home, I called my daughter and I said, 'The best thing has happened to me, probably the best thing since you were born' [laughs.]. I was so excited and then I called Anne and then I called Judy Bankson. [more laughs.]

LR: That's pretty exciting.

JS: It was.

LR: What is the future of quilting in America?

JS: I think it's without limit. My father keeps saying, 'What's gonna happen when this all falls apart? People can't continue this forever'. And I just think that the future of quilting is, I don't know-- I love art quilts. I think that since we have Chinese made quilts, we're not going to be making utilitarian quilts particularly unless we have special needs or purposes. I would like to see historical quilting continue. I think it's very important to recreate and represent certain eras. Judy Bankson does a lot of recreations of old quilts which I think are really important. I just think the future is open. I see it going into clothes. I see art quilts. I see, particularly in my field, liturgical quilts I think are very important. I would love to see more churches go kind of high end with their work and get into having quilters commissioned to do some of their work instead of felt banners.

Andrea Limmer (AL): [president of Chesapeake & Potomac Appliqué Quilters speaking from the audience.] Gee, you've really given us--you've inspired us. Maybe--I was thinking maybe we could--we used to have a program here where different months a different person would come up and talk about this stuff and this might be a really good way of integrating that by doing this kind of interviewing depth and finding out about ourselves in this format. I guess when asking and answering the question, is it sort of assumed that people can look at the quilt so they know what's being talked about because--

LR: Yes, yes.

AL: So you don't have to ask people to explain what it looks like or what it is there--

LR: Let me just close the interview and then I'll be happy to answer your question. Our time is just about up, so thank you, Judy, for allowing me to interview you this evening as part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. Our interview was concluded at 8:40 p.m. and it's March 5, 2003.



“Judy Shapiro,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 18, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1802.