Jill Herndon


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Jill Herndon 2.jpg


Jill Herndon




Jill Herndon


Le Rowell

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Iris Karp


Arlington, Virginia


Tomme Fent


Le Rowell (LR): This is Le Rowell, and today's date is January 8, 2008. It is 3:14 p.m., and I'm conducting an interview with Jill Herndon for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories, a project of The Alliance for American Quilts. And we are in one of the rooms in the lower level of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, in Virginia. So, Jill, thank you for coming for this interview. Tell me about the touchstone quilt that you selected to bring today.

Jill Herndon (JH): Thank you. The name of it is "Safari So Good." I was being an armchair traveler and putting together a quilt that would evoke Africa. My brother is a travel writer who specializes in Africa, and I wanted to make him a quilt. This one is actually a spinoff of the one that I made for my brother. Suddenly the blocks started taking on color tones of their own that had nothing to do with the blue-and-yellow quilt I was making him. It's really this block [points to a specific block.]. I was using a lot of hand-dyed and hand-printed fabrics and as I proceeded, they tended to go to deeper blues and into reds and sunset kind of colors. So, in the middle of the night, I woke up and realized I was making a quilt for myself as well as the one I was doing for him, and that these tones really worked for my house.

The two quilts were part of a show that I was asked to participate in. I was given a grant by the Chestertown Arts Council in Maryland, to prepare for the show with a girlfriend of mine, Meg Taney, who's an artist. She knew that I'd been quilting for a long time and thought that I had a large body of work just because I'd been quilting for a long time. She was really the person who started me on quilting by sending me antique quilt tops, and I had spent many years on one or two of those and they had been in shows. When she invited me to participate, she had just gone through some life events that, as her girlfriend, I thought she could use a real distraction from, and I always loved the synergy of our relationship so I said, 'Yes.' And then I had to make some quilts, because the antique quilt tops, though beautiful, were not quite the thing for an innovative multimedia show.

LR: What did you do with these quilt tops that you got, these antique quilt tops?

JH: That was really how I started. I had learned how to baste a quilt and then she got me the quilt tops, and so I knew how to put one together and I bought a frame and I started quilting and it was a backwards way into finally doing my own quilt tops, doing my own work.

LR: So that's how you learned to quilt?

JH: Yes.

LR: Did you have any experience sewing or anything before?

JH: I'd always [sewn.], my father taught me to sew when I was really little. He had his Boy Scout badge in sewing. And I had his mother's sewing machine, and I made my doll clothes, and I made my clothes in high school. And my grandmother had always taught me hand work, crochet, embroidery, things like that. It was kind of the era of 'Idle hands are the devil's workshops, so I always had something going on. I had a subscription to McCall's Arts and Crafts Magazine [possibly referring to McCall's Needlework and Crafts.] when I was twelve, so I was already interested in different media. This one really crept up on me and took over almost everything, including the quilting itself and the culture of quilting and the opportunities in quilting, that it was not just sitting there making doll clothes, that there was a whole tradition, that there was a social aspect to it. There's a whole community of people who can express enthusiasm and energy to each other and expand delight in life.

I loved doing the show with my girlfriend. I was flabbergasted to get the grant. And we got good press and were up for a month, and she made it seem so easy that I participated in about two more small shows like that, because it was--the mystery was gone.

LR: Was there a theme for the particular show?

JH: No, no. No, there wasn't. And what was again astonishing with the different quilts in the show was that people came in and said, 'You two must have been working together for years because her paintings go with your quilts so well.' And we hadn't; it just came together, out of the nature of the relationship.

LR: Interesting. Talk a minute about the fabrics. Where did you get them, over what period did you collect them, and how long did it take you to make this?

JH: I started with these kind of African fabrics. I think I bought a lot of them in Annapolis, but then at other quilt shows. A lot of fabrics are produced in color series, so that by the time I knew what I wanted to do, I couldn't find more of them, which fits right in with the whole scrap quilt kind of thing of quilting. It turned out that the batiks and hand-dyes and the American homespun and the Orientals really, I think, come together in kind of a sweet-and-sour taste here, that if it had all been one kind of African batiks, it would have been blah. And this one has a nice energy about it. The center block is African fabric that was printed in bronze and gold, that I bought about nine yards of, thinking that was going to be the main fabric in the quilt. And as you see, this is a Log Cabin, and it's just the chimney in the center of each of the blocks. It's also upside-down, so that it muted the color. [I have a lot left.]

LR: What do you mean, upside-down?

JH: I reversed the fabric. It's actually a little brighter than that, and the gold is [just too bright on the right side.] It was the first time I really followed more of an artistic process of just going for it. I cut the strips and I pinned them to my curtains all over the dining room and as I put together the Log Cabins, I would just look around and I was just glad it wasn't paint. But it was painting and it was just a handier way to use color.

LR: You said you pinned the pieces to the curtains in your dining room, but do you have a special studio or place in your home where you do quiltmaking?

JH: No, and my home is--yes and no. My home is so small that the dining room, in effect, becomes the studio. And the design wall was in the living room, so that this is a room that is, together, about twenty, twenty-five feet from one end to the other so I could get the distance I needed for perspective.. But both of these quilts were kind of the magic of quiltmaking, of stuff taking shape, and the emotions and the kinesthetic stuff of it. I paper-foundation-pieced it, which I had not used before, and I was going through a series of eye surgeries at the time, which is why I picked the paper-foundation-piecing and using the sewing machine to do the piecing, to get the straight lines because I couldn't see straight. So that handled that part and then when I put the blocks on the wall, I had what I called the 'bad eye' at the time, and I would just look at the colors and stuff with the so-called 'bad eye' and it would give me whether I was getting the contrast or not. So, the 'bad eye' became the 'good eye' during that process. And I know a lot of people now will try squinting to see what kind of contrast they're getting, you know, and I would just cover one eye up. It was really handy. So, it was not about making lemonade out of lemons; it was like just really finding new miracles. So, I enjoyed that a lot and knew that I could keep quilting.

I use this one on my bed at night. It kind of glows. And I just have the miracle of quilts. I also loved it because I had no idea what it was going to look like, and so it feels like a gift from a special spiritual source.

LR: You said you paper-pieced it. How did you learn to paper-piece?

JH: I taught myself.

LR: How?

JH: Read a book. And I needed more of the foundation pieces because I was now making two quilts or more. It was growing and I went to a quilt store [and talked to the buyer.]. She remembered where she had bought these foundation pieces and special ordered more of them for me and told me how she had done them and had written a book about paper-piecing, and I bought her book. Her name is Leslie-Claire Greenberg. We had the conversation, that's how I learned, and just tried it.

LR: What is your first memory of a quilt?

JH: It was the day a friend of mine said, 'My wife kind of needs a day off. She's going to baste a quilt. Let's go to the zoo or for a walk or something.' And I said, 'Well, I'd rather baste a quilt.' [laughs.] So, I went and basted. I don't know what it looked like. We spent the afternoon basting it on the linoleum floor of a friend's rec room.

LR: And when was that? How long ago?

JH: It was about forty years ago, thirty-five years ago. So, when I talk about backing into things, I had that and learned how to do that and thought I knew how to do it. And then my girlfriend in Chestertown sent me the antique tops, and I bought the quilting frame, and I was taking care of my mother during a long illness of hers and wasn't really feeling like being social, so I spent a lot of time quilting and found it a very soothing thing to do on that antique Nine Patch that I did. To me, my first kinesthetic memory of a quilt is that Nine Patch that I worked on, other than the pieces that led up to that.

LR: Where is that piece now?

JH: It's at home.

LR: Do you have a collection? Do you keep your quilts? Do you give them as gifts? What do you do with your quilts?

JH: I've collected some antique quilts. At first, it was ones that I thought that I would never do: Antique Wedding Ring, the Double Wedding Ring. But I'm doing a Double Wedding Ring right now that actually has saw-toothed arcs, so you never know what you're going to do. I have 1930s tops. It feels like these are orphans, and that somebody needs to have them that will appreciate them. So, in part, I'm the contemporary custodian, if I never quilt them.

LR: So, you don't have any particular plans, or do you have particular plans for them?

JH: I had planned to quilt them but as I got into doing more and more of my own stuff, it became less important to quilt somebody else's. And yes, I give quilts as gifts. I have made a special quilt for almost every member of the family. It's become somewhat of a family tradition. It's become a wonderful emotional bond with each person who has a unique quilt and the conversations with each one are very unique. One I made for my father has been on TV.

LR: Oh, tell me about it.

JH: He lives in the Riderwood Community Senior Campus.

LR: Where?

JH: Near Randolph Road, Olney. Silver Spring address.

LR: In Maryland?

JH: In Maryland. And on his quilt, I just played--it's not the kind of thing I usually do. It was a departure. I scanned photographs of him from when he was a boy through to his eightieth birthday and printed them on fabric. And then I framed them in kind of crazy Log Cabins and embroidered a center panel that says it is Edward Beverly Herndon's quilt. He has hung it at the end of his hallway with lights on it and there are many touching stories about it. They do tours of the quilt. They are so used to giving tours of the quilt that they give me tours of the quilt. So Riderwood has its own TV station, so they [interview residents and.] that was part of one of the interviews. It was before people started talking about scrapbook quilts. This is something people do a lot now, and I can see why, because it was really a celebration of my father and of our relationship, that he taught me how to sew, he taught me how to photograph, and he was an inspiration in my going into information technology as a career so that I knew how to handle all of the [scanning and.] printing on fabric at home, using my own computers and printers.

LR: So that's the process for the photographs you mentioned.

JH: Yes.

LR: Transferring--

JH: They're on fabric, yes. Then Teddy, my nephew, was four years old when he came over to the house and wanted his own quilt because his sister was getting hers, and we cut out fabric. It was rain forest fabric, Henry Alexander fabric, and we assembled it in an impressionistic mosaic that put little flowers at the bottom of the jungle floor and the animals were in the middle and the darker, deeper greens [at the top as if a canopy of branches.]., and we made him a rain forest quilt. And then I did some South American type of embroidery appliqu├ęs on the edges with these kinetic dragonflies. And we did his whole bedroom to go with it. He said he was really tired of teddy bears, so we could do rain forest. And the quilt has been an emotional part of his life. He put his hand through a glass door one afternoon and my sister was bundling him up to put in the car and he said, 'Well, we have to take the quilt.' So, she wrapped his arm in a paper bag and wrapped him in the quilt and took him to the hospital. And then they found a nurse who was a quilter who sewed him up. And now he's told me that I need to be thinking about when he's married, because that will be his son's quilt and he's going to need another one.

LR: How old is he now?

JH: Eighteen.

LR: So, you have used your quilts to get through difficult times. You mentioned your eyes. Any other difficult times that quilting has come to you?

JH: Yes, just before the eyes, I'd had a series of abdominal surgeries and spent quite a bit of time out of work. And when I went to the guild meeting and stood up and said that I'd been ill a lot, out of work that year, but I'd done my quilting, and I said, 'You're the only people who will understand what a good time I had this year.' [laughs.] So, 110 women gave me a rousing, 'Yea!' And I pulled out about five quilt tops that I'd done because I could stand up. I was not in pain when I was standing up. And it was really wonderful, it really was. So, in terms of getting through hard times, it made those times very special for a different reason.

LR: How has your quiltmaking impacted your family life?

JH: Probably has kept me single! It's improved the emotional bonds with the rest of my family. It gives me a wonderful hobby. If I ever find a husband who has, let's say, a boat or plays golf, I am self-entertaining. I've always been a person who has a broader notion of family, so I have an extended network of godchildren, who also have received quilts that I love and am in touch with as family. And I really like the community-building aspects of quilts, so I think in terms of family being the people close to us, the people in our communities, and beyond, internationally. I love quilting as a hobby because of its international reach these days, with the Houston quilt festival, the International Quilt Festival, and the extensive library, the Japanese publications, Australian, French. I'm delighted at how women are communicating that way.

I've used quilts in my community as kind of recognition, thank-you ceremony. We had a fellow who really poured his everything into turning our dirt yard with a chain-link fence around the community house into a beautiful, landscaped garden. And to thank him for the beauty that he's brought--and he maintains it now, and often--mostly at his own expense, I made him a quilt and asked my community if I could give it to him not just from me, but from all of us, because I knew they all also appreciate the beauty. And they said only if they could really give it to him in person, so we had a ceremony to thank him. And he was very moved by it, and it was another one of those, 'What's going on here? Moments when, later, he said, 'You've got to come into my house to see my quilt.' And I'm like, 'I spent three months making it. I know what his quilt looks like.' But I said, 'Okay,' and I went up to his bedroom. And I had picked up every color in that room. There wasn't a beat missing. Now when I say, 'I,' whatever it is, the Quilt Fairy had done it. And to this day, he just loves it and I, in part, did it because I knew that when his partner had died, he had lost custody of a quilt back to his partner's family. So, without ever saying that to him, I gave him a quilt. So, it was a way of taking care of him in that bereavement. But, wow, the colors really worked!

LR: Where is this community that you're talking about?

JH: It's right around this church, called Barcoft.

LR: What do you find most pleasing about quiltmaking?

JH: I really like large, complex systems with lots of rich parts, and having a product at the end. And quilting can be very simple and it can go in all different directions, so that quilting is not just putting the needle and thread together; it's the luxury of color and fabric and form, of history, of community, of social tools for being together. Quilts--like now we have networking or blogging or Facebook, and quilts have performed and continue to have that function, too. And it's pretty cool.

LR: What aspects do you find not particularly pleasing?

JH: There's always a moment or two or three in a quilt when you've already designed it, and it's just taking a lot longer to finish than you ever thought it would.

LR: You mentioned before a guild. Do you want a talk a minute--do you belong to a guild?

JH: I don't right now. There are guilds around here that I have belonged to. While I was going through the eye surgery, I stopped driving at night, so that had stopped--interrupted that guild activity. We started a group called the Friday Quilters here at the church, and I have participated in that group for two years now, and that helps with the long, boring parts because you come with the long, boring parts and talk with people and see what they're doing and generally get nicely distracted.

LR: How have advances in technology influenced your quiltmaking?

JH: Two ways. One is having a good machine that has integrated dual feed, so that tops and the bottom pieces don't slip out of alignment the way they used to. My seams are straight. If you look at these seams [indicating.], if you can find a mismatched seam on there, your eyes are better than mine. That's extraordinary, that part about the foundation piecing. The other is the use of computer. I can pull designs down and print them. I have another Square in a Square foundation-pieced quilt, and all of those were just from a pattern I found on the internet and pulled down.

After the antique quilt tops, and this is back about 1990, I was already online, and I belonged to a group called The Meta Network, which is a transformational community. It's the longest-existing online community. And we met--this was before the days of the Web as we know it now--it got me online and I learned about lists servs and news groups, and I joined a list serv group that was a Nine Patch block exchange. And so I would make up eighteen blocks, somebody was organizing this, I'd get the addresses, send them all over the world, and get eighteen blocks back. And so I would get them from like inside the Arctic Circle. I had to write and ask some people where they were. And they were in remote places. So the Internet itself has made the quilting community closer. Just picturing that Nine Patch block coming from inside the Arctic Circle, and she couldn't get the variety of fabrics that she wanted. This was wonderful to be able to use what she had and share and trade.

LR: What do you think makes a great quilt?

JH: Enthusiasm and attention to detail. You have to have that--and its enthusiasm in the sense of the Greek gods or something. You've just got to have that passion to do it. It is a complex thing. It does take time. The attention to detail, because it can be a sloppy mess. I do think understanding some things about color and form, whether intuitively, by doing a design wall, standing back, saying, 'Yes, that works. That doesn't.' or some training in color values and contrasts is useful. They can be imported. You can ask your aunt what she thinks of that kind of thing. But it's got to be there.

LR: And what makes a great quiltmaker?

JH: I think it's that kind of creative passion. It's whatever moves artists. My friend who invited me to have the art show with her until I was suddenly not a quilter but an artist, which was handy because she said I didn't have to finish the quilts; we could hang tops. [laughs.] Artists can hang tops. I really like that! [laughs.] So I talk with her from time to time about what makes an artist. There's something about quilting that I think once you get beyond, 'I'm making just a blanket for the warmth,'that's a blanket. When someone starts thinking about, 'What is a thing of beauty that expresses me, that I will enjoy living with?'that starts becoming the work of an artist.

LR: What sort of works are you drawn to particularly, and why?

JH: I think all quilters, even if there's different people at different times. There are about three right now that I really like. Karen Stone takes what are really traditional patterns and redrafts them for foundation piecing and has a wonderful palette with making scrap quilts that are just wild and expressive. The patterns she drafts tend to be the kind that you'd say, 'Never in a million years would I make that quilt.' And because of the foundation piecing, they're quite possible.

Nancy Crow is a studio quilter, as opposed to someone just doing it at home. She's a studio quilter. And her whole lifestyle appeals to me. Her quilts appeal to me in that she's exploring different themes, and I probably read her book sometime around when I was doing the Safari series, so it helped me unleash my own creativity and have the notion of doing a series, that I could learn from one and move along to another. She does things I wouldn't do. They're not where I am as a quilter. So, it is her process and her curiosity and the excitement that she generates, the kinetic use of forms. Like when Mondriani--not Mondriani, Mondrian first came in in the fifties, when I was a child, I noticed that he was trying something new that, to me, had a rhythm to it. And she does that, too. Actually, I'm doing a Karen Stone pattern now that she did as a scrap quilt. I'm doing more the rhythm kind of stuff that has helped Nancy Crow. And I think of 'tramp art' when I'm doing it, so that there's a circus-y feel to it and there's something bouncy or more kinetic going on than the samples that I'm working from, the pattern. So, she gave me rhythm.

And then there's a third person, Kaffe Fassett, who does color. He doesn't happen to do the colors I do, but his use of color is inspiring and I'm learning something wonderful from that. And his forms are simple, so here we've got two people who really play with form, the first two, and then here's someone with color. What I like about what he does with color that is within what I tend to do, is that I work in what I would call almost a monochromatic palette. His colors are so intense that they become monochromatic, in the sense that the hue--we were just looking at kind of browns, red ones today, a Lady of the Lake pattern, to get more traditional. And he has some lilac-blue blocks in there and it--I'm talking about colors that vibrate together. So that's what I like about him and what I'm learning from him.

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

JH: I probably have a small library of books about American quilts and collections of different states and women of the Oregon Trail, and I think it's that they incarnate the feel and texture of life at those times. We don't have many historical artifacts in our American culture, and quilts are one of the few. There's no quilting tradition in my family, back through my grandparents' generation anyway, but I was down in Texas doing some family genealogy, and Betty has the collective papers from an adjacent branch of the family, and she said, 'Well, not only did that woman keep all the papers, but she kept all the china, she kept all the this, she kept all the that, she kept all the quilt tops. I don't have anybody who quilts. I don't know what else to do with them.' And of course, our eyes locked, so I came back with quilt tops. And then I looked her up, Ruth Herndon, in the census. That was her maiden name. And found that after her husband, the professor, died early, she raised her four boys and she worked in a dress goods store in the 1950s, which helped me date the fabrics, because I was wondering how did this widow who was scraping by, also writing for the local newspaper and other things, have so many colors? And she had her pick, which is fun. It's made out of that fabric that came out about that time that looks like silk but it's not, and I've taken it to appraisers and they've warned me about how fragile it is and suggested that I quilt it as soon as possible on muslin and with cotton thread to stabilize the fabric. So that was good advice. And it gives me--I learn, as we can I think when we get these quilts and document them, how did people live, what did they do, what were some of the joys? Obviously, this was joyful. Fortunately, she had a quilt backing in there for one of them, so I'll put cotton in the middle and finish it the way she wanted it.

LR: How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future?

JH: I think people really need to learn how to preserve them. I think it's really useful to give people instructions. If you give them a good quilt that's not just a blanket for use, to tell them how to take care of the quilt, and I do that.

LR: What are some of your instructions.

JH: Wash it as little as possible. Start by vacuuming it with some tulle or net over the end of your vacuum hose, as gentle as you can do that kind of thing. And if you have to launder it, put an old sheet in the tub first and use a very gentle quilt soap, a special one, something like Orvus, and dissolve that and then put the quilt in. Push it up and down in the water and never wring it and never lift the quilt by the weight of a wet quilt. That's what the sheet's there for.

LR: Very interesting.

JH: You lift it up with the sheet and drain it. You can do a little bit of turning it and stuff, but again, pushing the water out. I've never really found good instructions for how to dry it after that.

LR: So, what do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?

JH: I would have said the cost of the sewing machine, but recently, two of my friends have purchased three-quarter-sized, small sewing machines that were about $500 that seem to be excellent. That was the biggest. The use of machines to quilt is--it's a space issue, both for the quilt and the sewing machine and the table, something to carry the weight. The traditional quilting frame for hand quilting managed the weight issue an easier way. And having the time. I think the other issue is finding a book that teaches you how to make the decisions that you're going to need to make. There are a lot of good teaching books on the aspects of quilting. There's 'When do you make what decision?' And I'd like to write a book like that. I'm glad that I had project management experience and that I'm used to breaking tasks out and that I can see the simple things like what you might do month one, you could actually do month five, or you could do it whenever or you could wait. Like if you use a traditional block construction, you don't need to know how you're going to set the quilt; you can postpone that. You don't have to wait to know everything [before you start.]. You can borrow supplies, trade fabric with friends. So, the design process for a quilt is still an area I think a lot of people could use help with. And part of that is also the investment, what tools to invest in at what point so that you don't shoot your budget on the wrong things.

LR: Very interesting. You have a challenge ahead of you.

JH: Yes.

LR: Our time is just about up. We have two minutes left. Is there anything else that you would like to add or that we haven't touched on?

JH: Yes. I think quilting is the only form of art that I know that you can wrap yourself up in. Teddy, when he was five, he made something bigger than he was, and that was a big accomplishment. So, I am looking forward to designing some courses for children, that they will have these quilting experiences as experiences in self esteem. I don't think our children are having enough experiences with things that they make and they hold onto so they can touch, especially the ones who go home with nobody at home and nothing to do but watch TV or play with technology.

LR: You have a great contribution to make, and that you are making. So, Jill, thank you very much for agreeing to be part of our Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. And our interview was concluded at 4:00 p.m.

JH: Thank you.

LR: Thank you.



“Jill Herndon,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2044.