Johanna Nelson




Johanna Nelson




Johanna Nelson


Julee Casey Johnson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Greensboro, North Carolina


Julee Casey Johnson


Julee Johnson (JJ): My name is Julee Johnson and today's date is December 14, 2008, at 2:20 p.m. I am conducting an interview with Johanna Nelson in Greensboro, North Carolina for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. We are doing this through the American Heritage Committee of the North Carolina State Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Johanna is a quilter and is a member of the Guilford Battle Chapter. Good afternoon, Johanna.

Johanna Nelson (JN): Hello, Julee.

JJ: Thanks for doing this interview. Tell me about the quilt you brought in today.

JN: The quilt that I brought in was made by Sarah Jane Smith and was in my grandmother's possession and it was the means by which a brick wall in my Salmon genealogy collapsed. I had wondered why Fannie Salmon Reynolds would have had the quilt and as I searched the census, I saw that Sarah Jane and James lived next door to William W. and Elizabeth K. Ricketts Salmon, my great-grandfather's parents, and that she was born in Virginia. The speculation that she might have been their oldest daughter led me to finding her in Knox County, Tennessee, her marriage to James Beverly Smith on the 13th of September 1843, and then the move on to Cherokee County, Texas in 1848.

There is a tag on the back of the quilt that says it was made by Sarah Jane Smith in her 83rd year. She was born in Halifax County, Virginia on the 15th of September 1824 and died on the 16th of January 1908 in Cherokee County, Texas. I'm glad I had written down that information because the quilt has been hanging over the washstand for the last thirteen years, except for two years in storage, and although the tag is folded inside, the typing has faded to the point that I can no longer read it.

So, the quilt was made in 1907. I have a scrap of another quilt that belonged to my great-grandmother that a cousin cut up and gave me. She can remember it being on the bed she slept in when she visited, and the very dense quilting looks similar. I've had that scrap appraised and been told that it was made between 1855 and 1865. The tan pieces were originally green, and the Turkey red may have been from imported fabric. So, the quilt and the scrap appear to have been made by the same person. The quilter was Sarah Jane Salmon Smith, the sister of my great-grandfather, James H. Salmon. He married Amanda Webb in 1863, so perhaps the quilt was a wedding present.

JJ: So, what do you think someone viewing this quilt might conclude about you?

JN: I think someone viewing this quilt and hearing its story would conclude that my family history is very important to me and that I love to keep tangible memories of my family around. Those memories are contained in the quilts and the furniture that were in my family. I have several other old family quilts.

JJ: That's wonderful. What are your plans for this quilt?

JN: I really have no plans for this quilt except to keep it over the washstand and then maybe someday give it to a direct descendant of Sarah Jane.

JJ: Tell me about your interest in quilt making.

JN: Well, my own grandmother must have done nothing for entertainment but make quilts as I have inherited around twenty unquilted tops, all made before 1940. I started quilting them about twenty years ago. I had my grandmother's old, dilapidated quilt frame that was extremely hard to use but I lent it to someone and never got it back. However, I did use it to do five of the tops--one for each of my daughters when they married, one for my mother, and one for me.

I vaguely remember sitting under the frame and pushing the needle back up when my grandmother and her friend, Mrs. Darby, were quilting. Grandmama died when I was five, so I'm not certain that that's a valid memory.

When I did begin to quilt, we were living in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania and a neighbor and her mother were quilters. We would get together and work on their quilt or mine. I would say that Mary Goater, who was my friend's mother, taught me to quilt.

JJ: And where did you grow up when you--

JN: I grew up in Tyler, Texas.

JJ: Oh, so that's where your grandmother was.

JN: Yes, that's where my grandmother was, in Troup, Texas, yes. [about 16 miles from Tyler, Texas.]

JJ: How many hours a week do you quilt?

JN: I am not currently quilting but I do still have all those tops to finish. I would quilt while I watched television or just sitting in the evenings. When I switched to using a lap frame, I took the quilt with me to the girls' orthodontist appointments, piano and flute lessons, and similar occasions.

JJ: I don't think I know a lap frame.

JN: It's a great big round circle frame and then you can just put a section of the quilt on that frame and then the whole rest of the quilt is all over you. [laughs.]

JN: And you're just working on the little piece that you're, you know, that's showing around the loop of the frame.

JJ: What is your first quilt memory?

JN: I don't know that I really have a first quilt memory. I do, however, still have the baby quilt that my grandmother made me and pictures of me on it. The border had to be changed when the fluted edge wore out.

JJ: Do you still have it? I mean, it's not framed or anything?

JN: No, it's just upstairs.

JJ: Can you tell me about an amusing experience that has occurred from your quilt making?

JN: I guess one amusing experience that occurred was making a wall hanging for my husband's office. He was a pilot and there were lots of patterns commemorating Lindberg's flight. So, I made him a wall hanging. It was framed in black walnut that came from the trees we had removed from our yard, with Lucite on the front and the back so that it could be turned around in order to see the pattern the stitches made on the back. The only problem was, it was so heavy that once it was on the wall, it could never be moved again. Since he retired, it has served as the headboard for the bed.

JJ: Oh, that is so interesting. So, do you ever turn it around so you can see the other side?

JN: No, no, no. [laughs.] It's nailed securely to the wall.

JJ: I hope I can get to see that. What art or quilting groups do you belong to?

JN: I don't belong to any quilting groups anymore. When we lived in Delaware, I was part of a group that made Ugly Quilts for the homeless. These quilts are pieced from any fabric that we were given, in no set pattern except how we could make them fit together, and lined with other pieces that weren't suitable to be seen. My circle at church in Jacksonville, Florida made beautiful quilts to be sold to raise money for missions.

JJ: So, this Ugly Quilts project, was that just a local project or is that part of a national--

JN: It's part of a national organization. It was started in New York at some time.

JJ: What a great idea.

JN: It is a great idea.

JJ: Are any of your quilts on public display?

JN: I did teach quilting for a while for the Chadds Ford Historical Society, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania Historical Society, but it was just basic quilting techniques. I did help design and make a quilt for the bicentennial about Chadds Ford which hangs in the Chadds Ford Historical Society Museum. I also helped make one for St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Wilmington, Delaware for the church's anniversary that's on display there. Both of those were just individual squares that commemorate some aspect of life at the time. The square I actually did for the Historical Society was Washington's Headquarters at the Battle of Brandywine, but I was involved in the fabric selection and the square placement, and the border design of the whole quilt and I did a lot of the quilting. One of my friends was the artist who actually drew the pictures, which we helped translate into patchwork squares.

JJ: And it's still there?

JN: It still hangs in the museum and as far as I know, I'm the only DAR that was involved in the project, although I am certain several of the others are eligible.

JJ: Great. What do you find pleasing about quilting?

JN: I just love the feel of the fabric and combining colors and patterns. It's a great deal of fun. I have only done one artistic painted picture quilt, or rather a wall hanging, for one of my daughters. It's of a unicorn playing in a field but calling it art would really be a stretch.

JJ: Oh, I'm sure it's beautiful. Have advances in technology influenced your work?

JN: No, I wouldn't say so because my favorite techniques are just the basic quilting and piecing and hand quilting. I could never get the hang of machine quilting.

JJ: What do you think makes a great quilt?

JN: A great quilt tells a story with the colors and fabric. One is drawn into the design and the eye is moved from one part to another.

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

JN: Oh, I think it must be a wonderful example of color usage and execution and design and I do love to look at them.

JJ: And what makes a great quiltmaker?

JN: Well, a great quiltmaker has to be skilled in all of those things. I am not a great quiltmaker. I am not an artist. My quilts are the old-fashioned patterns that were developed by our great-grandmothers and made of the scraps of fabric they had on hand. It's fun to be able to go to the fabric store and find ones to combine but it's also fun to remember where the scraps came from that have been collected and incorporated into the patchwork. When I was a child and very ill with asthma, it gave me great comfort to clutch squares made from my mother's dresses. Unfortunately, that quilt was lost, and I no longer have it.

JJ: Which artists have influenced you?

JN: I don't know that any of them have really influenced me except all those pioneer women who made quilts with the scraps of fabric they had on hand--the usable pieces of a worn-out shirt, the little pieces left over from a child's pinafore, the feed sacks, the horded and much revered remnant of a long-ago dress.

I don't know that I have an artist whose works I'm drawn to--names don't stick in my mind when I've been to exhibits. However, last Friday I was in the fellowship hall of the West Market United Methodist Church [Greensboro, NC] and hanging on the walls were lovely religious themed banners that were fabulous. Knowing that this interview was coming up, I asked about them and her name is Fray Metcalfe. I was told that there are works of hers all over the church, but I didn't see them. I don't know what this S.O.S. is supposed to encompass, if it's only DAR members, but if you haven't seen her works you should go by there.

JJ: I would love to. Actually, we went there a couple of weeks ago for Jazz Nativity and, but I didn't see the hangings. I would love to go back.

JN: And the only other fabric artist whose name I know is Dottie Moore, who lives in Rock Hill, South Carolina. She's a fabric, fiber artist who has written at least one book, which I have, in which her quilts portray a snippet of wisdom, such as, 'Dance to the melody of your soul,' which is a patchwork dancer in a field of green and a sky with clouds. I think she's also done a CD of her work. She's excellent. She's the sister of a lady I know in Raleigh but to my knowledge, neither of them are DARs, either.

JJ: Well, you know we can interview other people who are quiltmakers who aren't necessarily DAR, if you have somebody who would like to contribute. What do think about the importance of quilts in American life?

JN: They've changed over the years. They've become as artistic as any other medium and are no longer the utilitarian objects that they were in the past. In fact, their creators now think of themselves as fiber artists and not quilters. Time was when they were the way we kept warm. The settlers used them to add beauty to their lives, but they weren't the fabric paintings they are now. And perhaps our grandmothers wanted something that might be passed down with reverence and remembrance.

JJ: And what's happened to the quilts that you've made for friends and family?

JN: The quilts I've made are on the beds of my daughters--they're not used, just displayed. And the ones I made for my grandchildren were packed away; they weren't used, either. And on the other hand, the ones I made for my mother and me are all worn out. So, if I don't get back to quilting soon, I will have to rely on blankets. And they just don't have the same feel when you're sick in bed.

JJ: Well, how many quilts do you think you've made?

JN: Oh, I've probably made ten or so.

JJ: It sounds like even more, really when you contributed to a lot of others.

JN: I've contributed to a lot of others, yes.

[pause for three seconds.]

JJ: Before we conclude, can we go back and look at the quilt you brought in today and you tell a little bit about that pattern? It's just gorgeous.

JN: Ok, I've not been able to find an exact pattern for this. It's similar to one that was used in the Randolph family and there is a slight Randolph connection, so maybe it could be--Grandma Salmon's older sister married a Randolph, so it was an in-law deal.

It's green and red and the red is probably--might have even been an imported fabric I don't know, and the green was probably dyed but the stitching is so tiny and close together, that it's just beautifully, just beautifully done. It's an appliquéd pattern and then appliquéd on the solid piece of muslin and then quilted as well.

JJ: And that red is still so vibrant.

JN: The red is still so vibrant.

JJ: And it's almost like it puffs, it's puffed--

JN: It's so tightly quilted that it would puff.

JJ: It's beautiful. Johanna, is there anything else you'd like to add to this interview?

JN: Just that I want people, would like people to know, want people to know that fabric can be dated and there are appraisers all over the country who can do that. And that antique quilts have a story to tell. And if it hadn't been for this one, I might still be trying to find out where the Salmon line went.

JJ: So, it helped you in your research.

JN: It helped me in my research and my genealogy greatly.

JJ: That's wonderful. A very special quilt.

JN: I couldn't have done it without this quilt.

JJ: Well, I'd like to thank Johanna Nelson for allowing me to interview her today as part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories. Our interview concluded at 2:38 on December 14, 2008. Thank you, Johanna.

JN: Thank you, Julee, for coming.

[interview ends.]


“Johanna Nelson,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed April 24, 2024,