Connie Brown




Connie Brown




Connie Brown


Alice Helms

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Sandra Anne Frazier


Asheville, NC


Alice Helms


Alice Helms (AH): My name is Alice Helms. Today is December 16, 2009. I'm conducting an interview with Connie Brown for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. We're at the Folk Art Center in Asheville, North Carolina, and it is 1:00. Connie, tell me about the quilt you brought today.

Connie Brown (CB): The quilt I brought today is "Night Vision." I made it in 1992. The name came about because this quilt, I had pieced it and basted it and was ready to start quilting on it when the first Persian Gulf War started. My great plan was this was the quilt I was going to quilt on during the war. But that was a very short war. We were out of it, I think, in forty-one days and the hand quilting was nowhere near completed so it was about eight months later before I completed it. The name "Night Vision" came about was because during the news coverage of the war, they showed us many aerial night shots of the bombings and they talked about the night vision that the soldiers used and how the night vision darkened out the stars and allowed you to see the image. Well my quilt has dark stars and I thought that's very appropriate, night vision. So it's sort like my war quilt, but not really.

AH: So, did you design this?

CB: No, I didn't. It came from a pattern in "Great American Quilts 1990" [Sandra L O'Brien (editor), Oxmoor House, Inc., February 1990.] It was the first quilt that I ever used from a pattern and probably one of the last quilts that I ever used from a pattern because after this, it just gave me a lot of confidence to maybe mix and mingle different patterns and designs.

AH: So how would you describe the pattern?

CB: It's a 54-40 or Fight stars. They're put together with the stars touching and they have four patches that form these little circles going throughout the quilt. It has a scalloped inner border that's appliquéd on and two outer borders.

AH: And the first border is very unusual.

CB: Yes, it's a scalloped border. It was a really clever technique. It actually was put together with straight lines. You draw that curved scalloped border around your quilt and then you take bias tape that you've made, so I made that, and follow that line and appliqué both sides of it down.

AH: And this was machine pieced?

CB: It's machine pieced. That little scalloped border is hand appliquéd but then all the quilting is hand appliqué. [hand quilting.] One interesting note, when I did get to the very last border and was quilting on it--it was almost completed and I found a hole about the size of a nickel. I thought, 'What do I do? I'm almost done with this quilt,' and one of the prints in there had this little toucan bird so if you see at the very top, there's a little toucan bird appliquéd in the center, on that dark border, and he covers up the hole I found. And very few people--they notice the bird but they think I put it there for some other reason but I put it there to cover up a mistake.

AH: Oh boy. And what special meaning does this quilt have for you?

CB: This was the first quilt that I entered into any national competitions. It was accepted into the AQS [American Quilter's Society.] show at Paducah [Kentucky.]. It was accepted into Quilters Heritage [Celebration.] in Lancaster [Pennsylvania.] where it won a second place. It received a local award. It received a Best in Show award. It was the second bed quilt I ever made but third quilt I ever made, but it was the first one that got any real recognition.

AH: How do you use this quilt?

CB: I don't. [laughs.] It just lies flat on the bed with many of my other quilts. It is a quilt that is a family heirloom. I will pass it on to my son and someday his family, just in hopes that it's how they'll remember me.

AH: Why don't you just describe the colors.

CB: The colors are very 1990's. They are teal, and purple and kind of a turquoise blue--jewel tone colors that were popular in the early nineties.

AH: Very nice. Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking. When did you start quilting and how did you learn?

CB: I started quilting in 1990. We had just moved to Asheville, didn't have many friends, or didn't have any friends other than ones who from my son's preschool class and I thought, 'Well, I need to get out and meet people.' The advertisement came in the newspaper about AB Tech [Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College.] continuing ed [education.] classes. I looked through there. I had always been a crafter. I crocheted and made clothes and decoupage and needlepoint, cross stitch. Anyway, in the AB Tech continuing ed classes, I saw an advertisement for a quilting class and I thought, 'I'll go and take that.' Mary Field was the teacher and she's really good and she caught me hook, line and sinker and I fell in love with quilting and have been quilting ever since.

AH: So did you have quilts when you were growing up?

CB: Not necessarily. Not at my house. My grandmother who lived a couple hours away, she had quilts in her home just stacked up in this closet. My great-aunts had made the quilts. I never saw any of them actually quilting but I knew that my great-aunts had made the quilts. And my grandmother had these quilts just stacked in the closet and when we would go to visit during the summer and spend a week, us grandkids, she would tell us, 'Go back there and get you a quilt,' when it was time for bed, 'to be your Baptist pallet and then get you a quilt to be your cover.' And that's how we would sleep at night. And us grandkids, we would fight over which quilt we wanted and we kind of had our set ones that would be our Baptist pallet that we would put down on the floor, then we'd have a sheet and then we'd have a quilt that we'd put over us. I just remember those quilts so well. Luckily enough I now have four of them, two of which my grandmother gave to me herself before she passed away and the other two she had given to my son when he was a baby. When he was first born, she said, 'He needs quilts. You know, you need a quilt on the bed for him.' And so those were the quilts that I used on his bed.

AH: So your grandmother wasn't a quilter.

CB: No. She was not a quilter. My great-aunts were. I never saw them working on quilts but my grandmother had worked at a shirt factory, back during the depression time and she would bring home scraps and things, and then of course they would use feed sacks and things. They were very utilitarian quilts, they were meant to be used.

AH: And where did your grandmother live?

CB: This was in rural Tennessee- Lexington, Tennessee, sort of in between Nashville and Jackson.

AH: Do you remember what these quilts looked like? The colors, the patterns?

CB: They were very much Depression-era. There were several that were patterns like Churn Dash, one was called Crossroads. Many of them were what we called Crazy Quilts, not with elaborate embroidery, but they were crazy patch and string quilts. Most all of them have what is known as elbow quilting, just the circular fans. Some people call them Baptist Fans, or we would in our family because we're Baptists. [laughs.] Things that you would find that were typical of the thirties; pastels, pinks, greens and then on up, many that were made in the '40s and '50s that move on into the clearer colors of blues and reds. A lot of brown, what I would describe as a chestnut brown.

AH: But you didn't have any quilts in your house, your parents didn't have quilts when you were growing up.

CB: No. No.

AH: Did you know any quilters, other than--

CB: No. No. I just knew those great-aunts had made those quilts.

AH: You were a sewer.

CB: I was self-taught. I had one aunt that gave me a sewing machine when I was thirteen and said, 'Everybody needs to learn to sew.' My mother didn't sew. My mother owned her own business and was a businesswoman, a business professional. And my dad was also. Their rule of thumb was that they worked all day, they worked hard for their money and they went and purchased items, but I had this knack for, I wanted to know how something was made and I made my clothing and crocheted and decoupage, ceramics, macramé. I just did all kinds of--this was during the '60s and '70s, I just did all sorts of crafts.

AH: But it wasn't until 1990-- [both speak at once.]

CB: It wasn't until 1990 that I started quilting.

AH: How does your quiltmaking impact your family?

[pause: 7 seconds.]

CB: It's twofold. First financially, it helps my family because I do make quilts that are for sale. I'm a certified appraiser and derive a little income from that and then I also am a freelance pattern designer and derive money from that. So it does impact us financially which is a wonderful thing to have a hobby that helps pay the bills. On the other hand, my son has been exposed to me making quilts since he was three years old. All through his school years he was very much involved with coming with me to quilt shows, to help set up quilt shows, he worked on quilt committees with me. We've always gone as a family to different craft events and it is instilled in him a love, not just of quilts, but of all arts and crafts and I do think he really enjoys things that are tactile in nature, things that you can touch and feel. My husband also, he's trained very well. He knows when we go to big quilt shows, he'll walk around the shows with me and he may even look and say, 'Oh, those points don't match.' He knows that points should match or that thread needs to be tucked in. He also is on the lookout for antique quilts for me because I do have a small collection of antique quilts. So he's always on the lookout for antique quilts for me.

AH: So how did you get interested in antique quilts?

CB: Shortly after I started quilting in 1990 I joined the Asheville Quilt Guild. One of our speakers, I think in 1990, was Kathy Sullivan and Kathy did sort of a trunk show with antique quilts and talked about quilts. A few months later we had Merikay Waldvogel come over and she talked about antique quilts and I just had a love and a passion and they connected so much with me when I would think about the quilts my grandmother had and so I just had a connection there, a bond and every since then I have studied antique quilts, quilt history and am just fascinated with the stories and where fabrics come from and who made what. I just love the stories that go along with quilts.

AH: So what do you do in your role as a quilt appraiser?

CB: [pause: six seconds.] Well, the obvious is I provide written appraisals to people who need quilts whether it's an antique quilt or for a newly made quilt and that just establishes a value if the quilt was lost or stolen. I also give appraisals to people who want to sell an item. Most of them are for insurance purposes. It's just a written documentation for them. Oftentimes I have people come in with a quilt that they've either bought at a quilt auction or an antique shop or they've bought it at a yard sale and it's just a wonderful older quilt and they just like to know more information about it. Maybe what the pattern is or where it came from and those are things that just having experience looking at quilts you can tell, especially a southern quilt, you can oftentimes pick out a southern quilt because of the borders, or the quilting design or the materials used. It's just a learned experience I guess is the way to put it. The more I see quilts, the more I know about them. And so as an appraiser, we're there to give a value amount on an item but also to help them identify what they have.

AH: How long have you been an appraiser and what did it take to become an appraiser?

CB: I became a certified appraiser this year, in the spring of 2009. Like I said, I've been studying quilts since 1990. I didn't begin the actual, what I felt was my actual process of becoming a certified appraiser until 2004 and that's when my self-studies became more learned studies and I started taking workshops and classes, making lots of notes, keeping folders and information about every quilt I've seen. AQS, American Quilter's Society, has a program to become certified. They have some classes. Just because you take the classes doesn't mean you're certified but there is a testing that is involved, a lengthy entry process, where you have paperwork that you fill out and from there then you go on to test and the test is a written test as well as a practical test where you stand in front of some of the big names in quilting and tell them what you see in the quilts that they present to you.

AH: Are there a lot of quilt appraisers in this area?

CB: In our area, not really. Let me back up. There's only about 95 certified appraisers that are certified through the American Quilter's Society. There are two in the Raleigh [North Carolina.] area--Kathy Sullivan and Jane Hall and then Joyce Harvill who lives in Johnson City, Tennessee, just over the mountain from us. And then there's one in Atlanta [Georgia.] but our mountain area is such an isolated little area that I do see it as a really good service that I can provide, especially because Asheville is an artists' community. We have so many new quilters in the area, so many widely-recognized quilters and other textile artists. So I do--I would say more than half, probably about seventy-five per cent of the appraisals I do are for newly made quilts.

AH: Does Western North Carolina have a unique quilting style historically?

CB: I would say it's much like my family quilts. I would say quilts that are found in the Appalachian region, that are older, from the thirties and forties and even the twenties, are what people think of a scrap quilts and feed sacks and they do have that elbow style of quilting, the Baptist Fan, or Methodist Fan. So it's still that southern feel to it. I do find that many more of the antique quilts that are local to this area maybe are made with natural dyes, the fabrics, whether they're dyed with walnut hulls or different plants and things. North Carolina being a textile state early on, we do see quite a few quilts that come out of the mid-section of the state that have lots of prints. I assume that they had a family member who worked at a mill that brought home lots of different, unusual scraps. And there may be unusual fabrics, not necessarily cottons, there might be some slick, sleazy feeling fabrics in those.

[pause: six seconds.]

AH: Connie, tell me if you ever used quilts to get through a difficult time.

CB: [pause: six seconds.] Yes and no. I'm not going to say it was necessarily a difficult time for me personally, but it was a difficult time for our country. When 9/11 happened a lot of people wanted to know what they could do, or they needed to have something to do and quilters turned to quilting. One of the small groups that I'm in, we decided we were going to make a quilt that we would donate to some victim of 9/11, or to a victim's family, so we put together a quilt top, we had it all together, it was right before Christmas. Myself and another one of the members was going to quilt the quilt. We knew that we were going to send this quilt to this victim's family, it was a firefighter who had perished when one of the towers came down and his wife was expecting a child and he had a couple of other small children and so I brought the quilt home that day and basted it and started quilting it and as I was quilting on it I just felt this need and this desire, that I needed to finish this today, tonight. And I probably stayed up until 2 or 3 in the morning and quilted on it. The next morning I got up and quilted all day and into the night and had that quilt quilted. Because there was such a burning desire in me, that I needed to finish this quilt and send it to this person that I didn't know, just to let her know that there were other people in the United States that felt her pain and we were there to support her and I did, I finished that quilt and we sent it off and it was just such a great, wonderful feeling. Shortly after that quilt, I then did my own personal quilt that was a tribute to the Pentagon, the airplane that went in there. I just remember a strong patriotic feeling when I watched the TV and the firefighters unfurled the quilt [flag.] on the side of the Pentagon and I did my representation of a flag hanging that way on the Pentagon. I named the quilt, "The Pentagon Tribute." It was hanging in an exhibit and I had it listed for sale and it was purchased by someone in the Arlington [Virginia.]/Washington, D.C. area so I just felt it was my patriotic giveback and now that person I feel sure has some kind of patriotic, military connection too.

AH: What do you like the most about quiltmaking?

CB: The colors, the fabric, the touching, the fact that you can touch the product. One of my favorite things to do in the whole quiltmaking process is ironing. Oh, I love to iron. I love to see the wrinkles come out of fabric.

AH: What do you like least about quilting?

CB: What I like least about quilting is I do prewash all my fabrics. I typically make scrap quilts so I have lots of fat quarters and lots of little scraps and I prewash them and if you've ever pre-washed, you know they get all tangled up in a tangled-up mess and that's my least favorite part, getting the tangles out. I've tried all the techniques, clipping the corners, using pinking shears, but nothing seems to work for me.

AH: What quilt groups do you belong to?

CB: I'm a member of the Asheville Quilt Guild. I'm also a juried member of the Southern Highlands Craft Guild. I'm in a small group called PTA and I'm in the American Quilter's Society and also PAAQT, which is the Professional Association of Appraisers of Quilted Textiles and that's a small group of us, maybe a hundred or so, and we're just all quilt appraisers.

AH: What do you get out of being a member of various groups?

CB: Personally, with the Asheville Quilt Guild, it's where I started. It's like my mother group, that's where my whole quiltmaking adventure started. I take classes. I'm involved with the guild, with the quilt show. I've served on numerous committees, held board positions, and it's just a whole network and a way to learn and have access to quilting and to others who share the same interest. My small group, PTA, allows me a chance to get together with other quilters where we can share techniques and ideas and I can ask them to take a peek at my work and see if they think this looks good and I can look at their work and tell them if I think they're going in the right direction. And then the other professional organizations that I'm in, they're there as a support in those professions.

AH: How small is your small group? How many people?

CB: There's fourteen of us in that.

AH: And do you meet monthly?

CB: We meet once a month and we do try to have a little retreat once a year.

AH: And do you collaborate on projects?

CB: We do occasionally. We did on the 9/11 quilt. We usually do a challenge where each of us makes our own quilts that correspond to whatever the challenge is. We've entered a couple of those into the American Quilter's Society Ultimate Guild Challenge so we've had three of our challenges be accepted into that. So that was kind of fun to see our works all hanging together at a national show.

AH: And are you all professional quilters?

CB: Yes, we are. Whether you teach, or you write, or you have taught classes or whether you have studio tours. We all have some type of outside quilting activities.

AH: Describe your studio.

CB: It's rather small. It's only about ten [feet.] by ten. [feet.] So you add a table on one side and another table that has my sewing machine in it and then a wall that is shelves that are probably eight feet wide, they go from floor to ceiling. The other wall is closet doors and behind it is a huge closet that's filled with all of my fabrics. That also, my husband helped me put all that together and put the shelves in and put the shelves in the closet for the fabric. So it's kind of unique when non-quilters come to my house and I go, 'Come here and let me show you my studio,' and when you open those doors and there's nothing but fabric, they just don't understand and they're overwhelmed. [laughs. ]

AH: And do you have a design wall?

CB: Yes I do. It's nothing more than a piece of heavy flannel that pulls across the front of those closet doors. I use it when I'm working on wall hangings but when I'm working on a big full-size quilt the living room floor is being my design wall. I just find it so much easier when you're working with scrap pieces. The current quilt that I'm working on it has more than five hundred scraps in it and it's just too hard moving them around on the design wall. It's much easier to put them on the floor.

AH: How have advances in technology influenced your work?

CB: I would say in machine work, doing machine appliqué, machine quilting, machine embroidery, other things using the computer. Sometimes I do use Electric Quilt [computer quilt program.] to just get the foundation down and the measurements that I want to make a different quilt. I also use the computer to print out photos or interesting pieces of fabric and of course, all the gadgets that have come out. There's just a gadget for everything.

AH: What's your favorite gadget?

CB: And it's not quilt-related- pompom maker. [both laugh.] I love the pompom maker. I don't know why but I found it at a quilt show. I would love to--might just have to--the idea just came to me Alice, thank you, I might just have to put pompoms on my next quilt. [laughs.]

AH: I was going to ask you that. [laughs.] A tribute to the pompom maker. [laughs.]

CB: [laughs.] Yes.

AH: Okay, Connie, what do you think makes a great quilt?

CB: One that has visual impact and has meaning, meaning to the viewer and meaning also to the person that made it. A great quilt just speaks to the person who sees it, and it doesn't necessarily have to be something good. You may look at a quilt and go, 'Oh that's horrible colors. What was she thinking?' But maybe that was the reaction that the quiltmaker wanted so anything that gets you to thinking.

AH: And what do you think makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection?

CB: The obvious thing, if a collection is geared toward a specific item like maybe feed sacks and it's a feed sack quilt or if a collection is based on all red and green quilts, and it's a red and green quilt--those things are obvious. In a museum, therefore again, it has to have something that speaks to the viewers, have meaning. I do think workmanship is important to keep a quilt in good shape so it will last a lifetime. Not every quilt has to have perfect points but the seams have to be sturdy and have to be able to withstand the test of time. All the loose threads tucked in, the binding needs to be nice and tight, and not so where, wear and tear, it would just come apart.

AH: What makes a great quiltmaker?

CB: [pause: 9 seconds.]Someone that if she loves what she's making and what she's doing, it's going to show in her quilt. Her workmanship is going to be good, the colors are going to be appropriate for the subject matter, and it's going to have that visual impact.

AH: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

CB: Bernie Rowell, who's a member of Southern Highlands Craft Guild. I have loved Bernie's work since I first saw it, probably in the summer of 1989. She uses unusual items to make quilted textiles. The colors, her combinations, it's just very unique. It's wonderful work. A traditional quiltmaker that I admire greatly is Jane Sassaman and then, of course, all of our local Asheville members. I think they do wonderful things. Mary Field does great work. Everybody does. I like all quilts. I've not found an ugly quilt. [laughs.]

AH: How do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting? And what about longarm quilting?

CB: I think if our grandmothers had had the sewing machines we have today, that they would have doing a lot of machine quilting. It's not unusual to find quilts, old quilts, where machine quilting was done. Hand quilting and machine quilting does have its place. Longarm quilting, I'm not opposed to it, what I'm opposed to is when someone has gone to great effort to put a quilt top together and then they hire out the quilting but they don't hire out the quilting that is of the level that the quilt is. The quilt is at an elevated, wonderful level but then they don't get their money's worth in the quilting. Or they don't recognize that longarm quilter or the paid quiltmaker that worked on the quilt with them. And some people hire out hand quilting too, but you have to give recognition if you've not done everything on the quilt, all the work, you have to give recognition to the other people that have worked on the quilt, whether you've paid for it or not.

AH: Why is quiltmaking important to your life?

CB: It's a creative outlet and I feel that when I make it, I have produced something that is a usable object, whether it is a bed quilt that can be used on the bed or if it's a wall hanging that can be used as art on the wall, but I feel like I produced a piece of art that's usable.

AH: In what ways do your quilts reflect your community or region?

CB: There's a little of both here. If you think traditional Appalachian mountain quilts, you think scraps and traditional patterns, but Asheville is a big artist Mecca, we have so many different arts--contemporary, innovative, everything. I mix those two together, in a way I feel that relates to our area because I like using a traditional pattern with lots of scraps, lots of color, throwing in something a little innovative and unusual in there. So it's kind of a reflection of both.

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

CB: [pause: 11 seconds.] I think that quilts are a link to our history in several ways. First, the woman that made it. You can look at the quilt and tell the fabrics she had available to her, whether she purchased them or whether she saved scraps. Those fabrics themselves tell us what was going on in that period of time, whether they were old woodblock prints, whether it's a new quilt and someone has used a computer to print out wonderful fabrics or they've distressed or hand painted a fabric. It kind of tells us a little bit about what was going on at the time when a quilt was made.

[pause: 8 seconds.]

AH: What has happened to the quilts you've made for friends and family?

CB: I don't make many that I give away. My sister has a quilt that I made for her in '94 that she uses every day on her bed and I made it for her to use. It was not meant to be a family heirloom and saved and passed down so she uses it every day. I made a quilt for my mom that hangs on a wall in her home; that's what it's meant for and that's how it is used. And I've made a quilt for my son and he uses it and he loves it and it has a wonderful little story. For his eighteenth birthday, I thought, 'Well it's time I made him a quilt.' He was eighteen years old and he's been around quilts all of his life, but he doesn't have a quilt, other than my grandmother's quilts. Anyway, this was going to be a surprise for him so I started gathering some of his old t-shirts, old baby t-shirts, elementary school t-shirts, t-ball, just all kinds of things and my husband worked on this quilt with me and I thought, 'I need some of his new, current shirts,' so I went in his room and I stole a few shirts. He had no idea I was working on this quilt and he came one day, 'Mom, I can't find my Bam Margera shirt. I can't find my skateboarding shirt. Where is it?' and I said, 'I don't know,' I played real dumb and so I finished the quilt. My husband, he helped me quilt on it. We finished the quilt and we entered it in the Asheville Quilt Show and Dusty still didn't know about the quilt. And it received an honorable mention. He came with us to the awards reception, he heard them call my name and I went up and got my little ribbon and I told him, I said, 'You need to go around and find my quilt. I don't know where it's hanging.' So he went around and he found the quilt and he realized then that it was all his shirts and that there was that shirt that he was missing, his skateboarding shirt. So that was a lot of fun. He loves that quilt and he shows it off to all of his friends and things so it's a great shirt. [quilt.]

AH: It's a bed-size quilt?

CB: It's a bed-size quilt, yes.

AH: And he uses it?

CB: He uses it. Well, it's what I would call the bedspread, it's the top layer, it's not necessarily the one he cuddles up in but it's his bedspread.

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

CB: I think one challenge is, 'What am I going to do with all these quilts?' [laughs.] Not every quilt can go to every museum. I do think that is one challenge. Another challenge is they've bought all this fabric and 'What is going to happen to all this fabric when I pass away?' So we need to start using our fabrics and also if the quilt, if you meant for it to be used, let it be used and let it be loved. I need to do that myself, especially with the quilt I brought today. I need to start using it.

AH: I think we're just about out of time, so thank you Connie. This concludes our interview. It is now 1:45.


“Connie Brown,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 24, 2024,