Barbara Johnson




Barbara Johnson




Barbara Johnson


Judy Stryker

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

A Friend of the Quilt Alliance


Harrisonburg, Virginia


Evelyn Naranjo


Judy Stryker (JS): Good afternoon, Barbara.

Barbara Johnson (BJ): Hello.

JS: Why don't we start out by you telling me about this quilt you brought today?

BJ: OK. The quilt I brought today is a block of the month quilt and it was one of Maggie Walker's designs and it is the cat pattern ["My Cat's Garden."], and I love cats, and that is why I chose to do this one. It has, I think, twelve different blocks, but the center block is a little bit larger and it is all hand appliquéd.

JS: Beautiful. And you did say it is inspired by your love of cats, didn't you?

BJ: Yes

JS: The fabrics that you used. Are they special?

BJ: The fabrics more or less came with the kit and I substituted some for ones that I had in my stash that I liked a little bit better.

JS: How long, when did you make this?

BJ: It was probably about a 2-year project. Probably started in 2000.

JS: Then is this the first quilt?

BJ: No, this is not my first quilt. It is just one that happened to come around when I was in the middle of many of my other projects and I just fell in love with the cat design.

JS: How do you use the quilt in your home?

BJ: This one will be used as a wall hanging because it is not large enough for a bed. I think it would look better hanging on the wall.

JS: Oh, so it hasn't hung yet.

BJ: This one hasn't been hung yet.

JS: When did you finish it?

BJ: It is not quite completed. There are a few more stitches that need to be done to say that it is complete. It is pretty much finished. I just haven't had it out lately to look at it. I have a hundred and one projects started and want to start more every time I get inspired by something else.

JS: You want to tell me about your interest in quilting? How did you get started?

BJ: Well, how I got started was I ran into Dorothy Williams, or I met her at the doctor's office. And she started asking me about quilts and people here in the Valley. She had just moved here from Illinois. When she started talking to me about forming a guild, I had no idea what she was talking about. I thought it was just a bunch of old ladies sitting around quilting. [laugh.] And, so I became one of the first members. I had a neighbor, Elsie Terry, that quilted, and I didn't, I enjoyed seeing what all she had done, she did it all by hand. Then Elsie took me to a Mennonite lady's house that marked the white on white quilts and I got interested in that and I did that for a number of years and I marked one for Anne Oliver that she won first place at Paducah. She took some of the designs for the quilt center and, instead of doing it all in white on white, she chose to do it in appliqué.

JS: Is that the "Metal Ceiling" or what?

BJ: No this one was called Grandmother's Flower Garden.

JS: Oh

BJ: And it was on the cover of several magazines. I got recognition for my part in marking the quilt.

JS: Was that the blue and white?

BJ: No, it was, it had, some greens and oranges in it. She took the center design and I made her an extra set of templates for that section and she, like I said, appliquéd that on. I know, personally, Anne Oliver is one of my beginning inspirations in my own quilting. She won $10,000 for this and she sent me a nice check. And I think the quilt hangs in the museum at Paducah now.

JS: And when was this? When did you start? When did you meet Dorothy Williams?

BJ: I can't really say. It was when Dorothy first came to the Valley and I don't know, it's been about 18 years ago, roughly.

JS: Did you sew before then?

BJ: I had sewn a little bit. I had sewed by hand and I remember my grandmother's quilt frame, but I don't actually remember seeing her sit there and quilt at it. And no one else in my family seemed to have any hobbies, or anything, but through the years I had done, oh, ceramics, and a little bit of crocheting , but once I got into quilting that was it. Everything else had to go. And Anne Oliver had given my name to quite a few people out in California where she had taught some white on white workshops, and so I marked quite a few quilts for people out in that area and I supplied all the material and everything.

JS: Well, then, excuse me if I didn't quite--did you start marking quilts?

BJ: I actually started marking before I learned to do the quilting.

JS: Oh

BJ: And I did that in the evenings right after supper and I marked quilts until about 11 o'clock at night because I had a full time job during the day. And then I started slowing down after about 10 years of marking quilts for other people because I thought, 'Well if I keep doing this then I am not ever going to have time to do anything for myself'. I started out by doing a few small wall hangings. And I had taken one of Mary Berry's classes there in Dayton [Virginia.] to learn how to do patchwork, and do the hand quilting. And I liked, I guess I liked, doing the appliqué better than the finishing, the putting it together.

JS: So you started marking quilts and then you cut back on that so you'd have time to do your own quilting, and you did say that you enjoy, and I know you enjoy, the appliqué more than patchwork.

BJ: Well, at the very beginning I had a lot of trouble getting that true quarter inch. So then it was Nancy, how do you say her name?

JS: Seabro

BJ: She came to our guild and taught a class and after that then I was able to get a lot better with the patchwork. But I still like my appliqué. I am working on a Baltimore Album right now and I have about 35 blocks made, and I still have way too many, but I am going to keep making a few more and then I'll go through and decide how many I want for my quilt and toss out the others.

JS: How do you balance your quilting with your family life and friends?

BJ: Well, now the girls are grown and married and I just basically have grandchildren and so I can get quite a bit more done than what I used to.

JS: And aren't you the one who made some of the samples for the shop in Madison?

BJ: Yes. I have a friend by the name of Fran Miller and somehow she got to be friends with Thelma Shirley who ran The Little Shop in Madison [Virginia.]. They needed samples for in the shop, so that was how I got into a lot of these block of the months, was doing the samples. And then I helped Thelma put a few of the kits together. There's one called the "Blue Collection" that was a Maggie Walker design. And I also did have a finished quilt of that which I am just now starting to quilt on too. And then I had a lot of illnesses and I have slowed down a little bit. I have some problem with my eyes so now I can't stick to it as long as I would like to.

JS: You certainly do a wonderful job. I can't believe it. How long it--how long does it take you to complete one of these blocks?

BJ: One of these blocks is probably about a week. The center cat block in this quilt has two cats and there was some 300 and some pieces in that block alone.

JS: Oh my.

BJ: So it took a lot of time, and then I decided I didn't like some of the colors that I had used in the orchids so I picked those out because I felt the color should go in the other flowers, so I switched and did that. When I was younger if I would have had to pick out something that would have been the worst thing in the world for me but after I got into quilting, and I'm kind of a perfectionist to a certain degree, I like things to look, you know, special when you put that much time into it. And, I can't imagine doing it myself, but I have seen a few of these made that people used Wonder Under.

JS: I see the little bird here on the vine.

BJ: Um-um

JS: That is just amazing.

BJ: But there is this trumpet vine that goes around the outer edge and I had first used this orange color in the orchids and then I decided that would look better in the trumpet vines and so I picked that out and redid that. And I find that the Bali material is really good for doing small things because of the tight weave that you can turn it under especially for the eyes of the cats. That was really hard to do.

JS: You want to explain a little more about Bali fabric. You mentioned the tight weave. Is there anything else particular that you like about it?

BJ: Well, I really like the way they do some of the shadings, especially for when you do flowers and all. It really gives you a nice color that you wouldn't find in just ordinary fabric unless it was some dyed fabrics. But I guess, like I said, I really like the tight weave because of being able to do something that is really small like the stem or the nose or around the ears of the cat. Without that particular type of fabric, it would have been much harder to work with.

JS: What do you think makes a great quilt or a great quilter?

BJ: I think you have to have a love for it and, which I feel I do, but I'll never be a great quilter. I just consider myself kind of an average quilter.

JS: You are more than average. There are very few people who can do the work, I think, the appliqué work that you do. Well do you have any ideas about it? What kind of a quilt, or what in a quilt would make it a quilt for a museum or special collection?

BJ: I think it would have to have nice color balance, an interesting design and small nice even stitches. And my stitches are not, I can get them small, but I can't get them as perfected as I would like. I have actually seen my friend [Fran.] take her thumb and back off a few threads off of her needle to keep her stitches small and even. She did win an award for the best quilt stitch out in Paducah one year on a white on white.

JS: That's very interesting. Would you consider quilting an art or a craft?

BJ: I would consider it an art because I think it is much more than a craft. Well the last quilt show I went to there was a lot of the machine quilting with the fabric art, I don't know what you would call it, fabric art.

JS: Art quilts.

BJ: Art quilts, but I'm not as impressed with that. I mean there are a lot of nice things, but I don't think they have the same feel or warmth as the more traditional quilts.

JS: And I take it, and you're saying the all hand?

BJ: All hand, yeah. With the exception of scrap quilting. There is an exception to that but I mean the finished part done by hand rather than done by machine, and definitely the appliqué done by hand.

JS: And you did explain--Describe something about your fabric selection. Besides your preference for the Bali fabrics because of the tight weave. You seem also to like the jewel tones. What do you say to that? How do you choose your colors?

BJ: Well it has a lot to do with the project that you are working on. And a lot of times I can't find some of the colors I want because in this area we're limited as to the quilt shops and fabric shops. You have to go to more than one quilt shop in order to find different things for different projects because it seems like certain shops seem to have their own taste in colors or fabrics. And I like to shop for fabrics on the internet. I find that a big help when it comes to finding that one missing or hard-to-find fabric.

JS: Do you always work in cotton? Or have you ever used other silks or other?

BJ: In the beginning I made a mistake and used some poly-blends and I [laugh.] I found out, I like the finish, I like the white on whites even if it's got a bit of poly-blend in it, but they just tend to be a little bit harder to work with. I have tried a few crazy quilt projects using silk ties, rayons, and velvets. I was happy with the results of those. However, for traditional appliqué and patchwork, I prefer 100% cotton.

JS: Well, I take it quilting has become an important part of your life.

BJ: Yes. I find it very satisfying and relaxing.

JS: Oh.

BJ: As far as finding fabrics on the internet, you can find fabrics that you wouldn't find locally in the quilt shops. Like one year we went to Myrtle Beach [South Carolina.], and the fabrics that they have at Myrtle Beach are, I guess, more for the seashore so to speak. And another time you want a border print and none of the shops around here carry border prints. So going on the internet you can possibly find what you are looking for.

JS: Have you ever been disappointed when you received the goods, that it wasn't quite what you thought it was?

BJ: No, most of it I was very pleased with. For the back of this quilt I chose a cat fabric and I wanted something that didn't look cutesy-like, that was more realistic, and I was able to find what I was looking for on the internet. It is very realistic looking, I thought, and I am real pleased with the colors.

JS: Is there one manufacturer you lean more toward than the others?

BJ: I like Kona Bay very well because I like their weave and it doesn't feel like cotton in a way. It almost feels like a better blend. Benartex, I feel like it has a looser weave and I feel it's not as good for appliqué. It's okay for piecing or background though.

JS: Tell us if you have ever thought about, well, what do you think about the importance of quilts in American life? Or how, do quilts have a special meaning for women's history? Have you ever made a quilt that expressed an opinion, your opinion, or?

BJ: I think quilts are an important part of our heritage. I haven't made a quilt that necessarily expresses my own opinions but I do feel that they still represent what's important to me.

JS: Why cats?

BJ: Cats I picked because that is something that I like for myself and that will hang in possibly my sewing room, which I was fortunate enough to build on to my house last year.

JS: Oh, wow.

BJ: And I have light colored walls so that there are some spaces that I could hang these quilts. For one thing, I have made a quilt for each of my daughters. I only have the two girls and they have three children each, but I am not going to be foolish to make a quilt for each one of them. I'll add to my collection and then they can pick out from that what they want. But as far as trying, it is because I cannot hold myself to one project. I just, I have tons of boxes with projects already started and I want to finish. I took a patchwork class from Mary Beery when I was first learning to quilt. Then, fifteen years later, I repeated the same class from her right before she retired. It was amazing how far I had come as far as choosing colors and just getting better overall. And I haven't even finished either project yet. [laugh.]

JS: Well, have you ever thought about not finishing them, or do you still have a desire?

BJ: I still have a desire to finish them. I had an illness about two years ago and it took me quite a while to recover from that, and in the beginning I didn't think I was going to recover, so it's been hard to get back on track.

JS: Do you ever purchase, you talk about your grandchildren being able to choose from your collection. Do you ever purchase quilts? Or do you have other family quilts?

BJ: No, I have a few family quilts my grandmother had made. She died when I was sixteen and therefore I didn't have anyone to more or less follow, to take after, because my mother, she couldn't even sew on a button. I guess I inherited this from my grandmother not knowing it. She let me play with her treadle sewing machine when I was six years old and I was trying to make doll clothes and things like that. But I think all my life I have been interested in a lot of hobbies and I have tried to branch out and do things. And I got my daughter, Sherry, a nice sewing machine about two years ago to try to encourage her to sew as much as possible. And I have even gotten her one of Jinny Beyer's quilt kits for her birthday, but it is still in the package. [laugh.] I guess she's waiting until her children all get in school before she takes on this project.

JS: Do you have an interest in other crafts?

BJ: Stained glass. I took a class in that and I bought a bunch of glass. But that was at the same time when I got sick, so then that is on hold. I still want to do some of that, but I don't want to get away from my quilting. I love my quilting. And it is something I can sit and do in the evening and watch TV and appliqué. I can't sew the dark fabrics very good in the evening. I like to get all my colors selected in the daytime and my small pieces cut out and then I have them there and sit down, and I have a light that comes over my shoulder, and I can sit and do my thing in the evening.

JS: It seems like the stained glass is a lot like appliqué too.

BJ: Yeah. And I have a lot of patterns, some things I want to work on. I like designing things. I'm not that good at it, but I like kind of playing around with different things and a lot of things like quilt designs I can incorporate over into my stained glass, which I want to do.

JS: That's very interesting. How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future and also, how can we encourage quilting in young people? Do you have any; have you ever given that any thought?

BJ: No. It's kind of hard for me to get my daughters started because like I said, they each have three children and that, it seems like, when you have children now, they're involved in so many sports and activities. My one daughter, Debbie, made a vest and this was her first project, and it was a crazy quilt vest and she embellished it with beads. This girl can pick up a craft and do most anything. And she can spin. I had bought her a spinning wheel and she had learned to spin. I used to get them cookbooks when they were in college. They seem to learn things on their own much better than I can. They were laughing like when I die, they're going to have all this fabric. I don't know what they're going to do with it. I have a ton of it. No matter how much fabric I have, whenever you start a project, you still need something else, and so there I go to the store, and a couple more yards of this and that.

JS: That's probably why you had to build the sewing room. [laugh.]

BJ: Yes. Well, my spare bedroom was my sewing room, but there wasn't enough room to branch out.

JS: Well, you want to tell us about this? So that is why you built the sewing room? You actually added an addition.

BJ: I had an old back porch that I wasn't using and a deck and one day I was standing there, and I thought I'm never going to sit out here. This would be a good location for a sewing room, and so I called the contractor up and he said, he was in between jobs, and he said he would come over that afternoon. So, within six weeks he had started the project. And I am just really delighted. I put in built-in bookshelves and then I added another little room without a window because of it fading my fabric and I had these shelves that have the plastic coating installed. Those shelves cover 2/3 of my storage from ceiling to floor. And I have these plastic boxes, they're Rubbermaid, but they kind of have a lid that opens up and I measured the shelf space for two of these boxes to fit in there. I got a lot of projects in these boxes. They're all labeled. And then my fabric is stacked on some of these shelves where I could go in there and look at it and not have to dig through boxes or anything. At first, I had them all color coordinated in plastic containers, but now I have them up on the shelves. It is amazing. I can go in there and start a project and destroy that room pulling out things. [laugh.]

JS: I understand how that goes. Well do you do all your quilting and appliqué work in there? Do you have a TV in there?

BJ: I have a TV in there and a computer in there, but I was very disappointed this winter. It was extremely cold in there and don't know why. Well, I had trouble and had to replace my heat pump, which wasn't even but 8 years old. I guess we had an extremely cold winter. But then, through another friend, Wilsene Scott, I found out that you can get these little portable heaters, so I found two of those. They work great!

JS: How big is your room?

BJ: It's, let's see, probably 12' by 20'. It's a pretty good size room. It would make a nice family room, but as long as I live there it is not going to be a family room. It is my room.

JS: Do you ever go in there and spend the whole day?

BJ: Yes, I do from morning to night. [laugh.] Like I said, I have moved the computer out of the bedroom and put a TV in there and I bought a cabinet for my sewing machine, and I have, instead of having an ironing board set up I have one of those small ironing boards set up, right next to my sewing machine on a table. That way I can just sew and go and turn around and press. And until I got into this quilting, one thing I hated to do was iron. But now I keep my iron there. And my cats will come and sometimes I'll have to scoot them away. They'll be there and I'm trying to draw something or lay down a project and they'll want to lay right there on the table or sit there on the sewing machine while I'm sewing.

JS: They're feeling neglected. [laugh.]

BJ: Yeah.

JS: Have you given any thoughts about the future of quilting in America or the trend? I know you've kind of mentioned art quilts.

BJ: Now, I've noticed a lot of people are getting into the art quilt and there's a lot of artists that are expressing themselves through painting a fabric and doing it that way. And I feel I can't even hold a candle to these people because I'm not artistic in that aspect.

JS: Well, I don't think you can feel that way.

BJ: There's times when I wished that I could draw when I have ideas that I cannot express, that I cannot put on paper. I have designed a few patterns from just getting ideas from this or that. Some were ceramic patterns, patterns that I had seen that you add to and enlarge.

JS: Now that's a good source, and the stained glass.

BJ: Yes. And I found quite a bit on the internet about that. And some of those designs, like there was a book one time that I had gotten on stained glass, that I thought this would make a really nice wall hanging. It was a southwestern design. It was an Indian sitting on some rocks watching some sheep or something. Well, here I was at a show several years ago and someone had did this very thing. It was unusual to see that someone had the same idea as I had.

JS: Have you seen the "Bride's Quilt"? Linda Poole's?

BJ: Yes, I have. I have seen that.

JS: You can take ideas from that with cross stitch and--

BJ: I took a workshop from her one time. It was she did this lady's face and it had nose and hair and I never really completed mine. Most of the projects or workshops that you take, you get very little done at the workshop. You have to come home and finish it on your own. And I have a lot of those in boxes. But learning that technique, no matter how much appliquéing I do, I still take classes from other people. That's like on the Baltimore Album I had started collecting Elly's [Elly Sienkiewicz.] books back in '89 and I just never got motivated until Cathy Thornton that works at Rachel's Quilt Shop up in Staunton [Virginia.], offered this appliqué class on Baltimore Albums. And then, also, we took a trip to the museum in Baltimore to see some of the quilts that hang there in the museum, but I just needed that motivation. I am not good a getting a book and sitting down and going with it. I like for someone else to do the reading and to show me and I'll follow.

JS: [laugh.] Well, our time is almost up. Is there anything you would like to add? Any aspect about quilting or anything about your quilting that you want to tell me about.

BJ: I think it's good that we have a guild. We have a guild here in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I would like to see more younger members. In the beginning we had quite a few, but now it seems we have a lot of older people. Of course, myself I'm quite a bit older than when I first started. But I would like to see it keep going. I think we all kind of feed off of each other. Especially when we have a Show and Tell and you see someone else's project and you think, 'Gee, I can do that'. There was a wall hanging that I had done a while ago. Basically, it was a dragon, but it was a line drawing for ceramics, and I did it on gold fabric with red thread and then I had appliquéd a design around the edge. At one of the guild meetings not too long ago there was a lady there and she had done the same design in all multiple colors, like I think she called it a Mardi Gras, or something like that. But it was surprising to me that she had used the same pattern because this picture, when I got it, was like 2 or 3 inches big and I had taken it and enlarged it with an overhead projector, and I had made probably like a 36 by 36 wall hanging out of it for my daughter. And to see someone 10 or 15 years later use what seemed like the same pattern [laugh.] I never got a chance to ask her about her design.

JS: Anything else? I sense that you are concerned about passing on the tradition.

BJ: Yes. I would. Hopefully my daughters will pick up some day when their children are a little older and they have a little more free time to sit down and do the needle work because they are certainly going to have a lot of unfinished projects. They're going to have to decide what they are going to do with them.

JS: Right. And is this something that you do because it gives you satisfaction?

BJ: It gives me a great deal of satisfaction. It is something I just thoroughly enjoy. I even hate to have to stop and cook anymore. And a friend of mine said the housework will always be there, so I'm kind of learning to do that too. To learn to let the housework go and do one of my hobbies. Because I spent most of my life working and it had to do with a job that destroyed my back so now, I'm kind of taking it easy. Maybe I sit too long. Maybe I should get up and move around a little bit more.

JS: Well, unless there is anything else you would like to say I would like to thank you for allowing me to interview you today as part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project.



“Barbara Johnson,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 19, 2024,