Jan Snelling McTaggart




Jan Snelling McTaggart




Jan Snelling McTaggart


Nola Forbes

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Rutland, Vermont


Nola Forbes


Please note: Jan is not a member of the DAR. While this is a DAR quiltmaker documentation project, membership in the DAR is not required for participation.

Nola Forbes (NF): My name is Nola A. Forbes and today's date is July 17, 2009 at 11:03 a.m. I am conducting an interview with Jan Snelling McTaggart at Mary Ryan's home in Rutland, Vermont, for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. We are doing this through the American Heritage Committee of the Vermont State Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Jan is a quilter. Jan, tell me about the quilt you brought in today.

Jan McTaggart (JM): The quilt I brought in today is "Scrappy Stars." It's one of my favorites. I like to make quilts that look like reproduction quilts. I also enjoy putting different fabrics together in interesting combinations.

NF: What special meaning does this quilt have for you?

JM: I think it reminds me of an antique quilt. My husband, John, when he looked at it, liked it in the beginning with all the stars. Then I put on that wonderful border which I absolutely love. His comment to me was that it--he restores old cars--he said that it looked like it had been over pin-striped so we varied on that. It's a very special quilt.

NF: Why did you choose this quilt to bring to the interview?

JM: Because it's one of my favorites.

NF: What do you think someone might conclude about you after viewing this quilt?

JM: I think that they would be able to see that I have an interest in reproduction fabrics and making quilts that are reproduction. That they look like they are an antique quilt.

NF: How do you use this quilt?

JM: It's a combination. I have several racks that I fold and display the quilts on or I hang them on the walls in my house.

NF: Has this been in a quilt show?

JM: Yes.

NF: Which?

JM: The Vermont Quilt Festival. [Essex Junction, Vermont.] It received a red ribbon. It's been at the Maple Leaf Quilt Show [Rutland, Vermont.].

NF: What are your future plans for this quilt?

JM: All my quilts, my children and family are interested in. So they're going to stay within family.

NF: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

JM: I started when I was thirty-three. I made a quilt for my younger son [Richard.] for his birthday. I think when you make one quilt it's like eating potato chips. You have to make another one. His brother wanted a quilt. So I made one for him. After that I couldn't stop.

NF: From whom did you learn to quilt in those early years?

JM: I was self-taught. Then later I started taking classes with national quiltmakers. We'd go to Houston [Texas.]. The New England Quilters' Guild Museum [Massachusetts.] had wonderful classes with national quiltmakers. Green Mountain Guild [Vermont.] also had a lot of classes with the national quiltmakers.

NF: Is there a particular one that comes to mind?

JM: I really enjoyed the one with Nancy Crow. Any class with Nancy Halpern, who is fantastic, and Ruth McDowell.

NF: So you pursued becoming a quilt teacher as well.

JM: Yes. At the time, when I first met Mary, she was in one of my classes. At that point, because I was interested in quilts, the Y asked me to teach. [YMCA- Young Men's Christian Association in Rutland, Vermont.] They didn't know anyone else to contact. Basically, in those years, I was one step ahead of the student. I would go home, do the project, come back the following week. Mary's a good example of the student going way beyond the teacher.

NF: How many hours a week do you quilt?

JM: I've had some illness recently so I haven't been able to quilt as much as I would like. In the past I have tried to do ten minutes in the morning and ten minutes in the evening and then an hour or two on the weekends. I've always encouraged my students to try to do small amounts of time because before you know it you've got one block, two blocks then several that are completed. I think in this day and age with our families and jobs, it's really hard to get one or two hours. I always have my sewing machine set up so that I'm able to go and just do some sewing.

NF: What a great idea. What is your first quilt memory?

JM: My first quilt memory was being underneath the quilt frame at my grandmother's. She and her friends and some aunts quilted. They set the frame up. It was on a rod. They set it on the dining room chairs. My sisters and I were able to play underneath it so basically it was like a fort for us. We certainly enjoyed it. I have one quilt from my grandmother which I treasure. I remember when my boys were in high school. They would come home and take a nap. They both would argue who was going to get her quilt.

NF: What was her name?

JM: Lena White.

NF: Are there other quiltmakers among your family?

JM: No.

NF: Do either of your boys use the needle?

JM: No, but Richard, my youngest son, made a pillow block at one point.

NF: How about friends that are quilters? Could you tell me about some of them?

JM: Mary Ryan and I are best friends. We've done everything together in quilting.

NF: How does quiltmaking impact your family?

JM: When I first started out I did not have a sewing room, so the dining room table was probably the largest impact. The sewing machine had to be cleared off and the cutting mat, so that we could have dinner. That was somewhat of an impediment. I would use the dining room wall as a design wall. When I was having trouble, I couldn't figure out what was going on, they would come in after school and they'd say 'Oh, why did you put that there?' Then I realized they were correct in their assessment of it. Later, I was able to get a studio.

NF: Tell me if you have ever used quilts to get through a difficult time.

JM: Very much so. I went through a divorce. Quilting was probably one of the things that I was able to do. I wasn't able to read or concentrate, but there was something about quilting. It's almost like a mantra. You have that peacefulness. Then you also have a sense of accomplishment. It's like knitting. You want to go one more row to see the pattern. Well, you want to make one more block to see the design that's emerging.

NF: Tell me about an amusing experience that has occurred from your quiltmaking or your quilt teaching.

JM: In quilt teaching, Mary and I were co-teaching at the Vermont Quilt Festival. This person brought in double-knits. She was a dressmaker and that's all she had. We had specified cotton fabrics. We both individually had said 'This is not going to work. Would you like some of ours?' She was very adamant. Consequently she made the half-square triangles. It looked like it was a butterfly. It was very difficult to work with. Then the other incident happened a couple of years back. I had somebody show up to class at Vermont Quilt Festival. They only had a ruler and a cutter. The class material list had specified to bring the cottons, because we were actually going to do some sewing so that was a little difficult.

NF: She had the tools but no fabric?

JM: No fabric.

NF: What do you find pleasing about quiltmaking?

JM: I love putting the colors together. I think color is one of my strong points. The colors of the fabrics. The different designs of the fabric. I've done several scrappy quilts. This one is mild compared to some of the other ones but the original one still is my favorite.

NF: What aspects of quiltmaking do you not enjoy?

JM: I used to hand quilt. Then it got to the point with arthritis and not being patient that hand quilting is a part that I do not enjoy.

NF: Would you talk about some of the prizes that have come your way as part of the quiltmaking?

JM: Mary and I have, on quilts that we've collaborated, won several prizes. I think the first is the one you never forget. That was at Houston [International Quilt Festival, Houston, Texas.]. It was a blue ribbon. It was for the Feathered Star quilt that we had made for the Vermont Quilt Festival raffle quilt. We also received the Judges Award ribbon from Michael Kile. As Mary said, we flew home. We really did not need to take that air trip. But it was wonderful. Michael had made one comment that about our binding. That it should have mitered. That was something that we learned. Since then, on all our quilts, the binding has been mitered. We have won several awards at the Vermont Quilt Festival. We've won first and second place at Paducah, [Kentucky.] which is another national show. [American Quilting Society, Paducah, Kentucky.] We have a fair amount of ribbons, which is quite nice.

NF: What art or quilt groups do you belong to, or have over the years?

JM: Probably the first was the Green Mountain Quilters' Guild. I went on to become President there. [from 1984-1986.] At the same time we were involved in the New England Quilters' Guild. Mary and I co-founded the local Rutland group, the Maple Leaf Quilters. We're still active in that. They meet six times a year. At one point we had a small design group going, which was really challenging because we all did different things. It was a higher level in terms of everybody forcing each other to be better. As I mentioned, I was good with color and design. I'd bring something in. I'd show it to Mary. And she is very precise. I would know I'd have to have my points meeting, because if I didn't she would say, 'Oh, that's too bad.' So she's been a great influence in my techniques.

NF: What was the name of that group? Did you have a name?

JM: I don't think we had a name. I think we just called ourselves the Design Group.

NF: Then you became involved with the Vermont Quilt Festival?

JM: Yes. That's been over a thirty year love affair. We met Richard [Cleveland.] at the Green Mountain Quilters' Guild meeting. [at its first meeting October 27, 1979.] There was something about him. We connected. Then we started doing things together, being on his Quiltsearch committee. I started vending at the Vermont Quilt Festival. Then we [Mary K. Ryan and JM.] ended up going on the Board as a team. Marketing and Publicity Directors and then we switched to hiring the teachers. So it was a very exciting time.

NF: Then you developed your Vermont Classic?

JM: Yes.

NF: Would you describe that.

JM: Yes. The Vermont Classic was something that Mary and I had been talking about doing for years. As I mentioned, I went through a divorce. I realized that I needed to augment my income. So that year we started The Vermont Classic in Shrewsbury, Vermont. I lived in Shrewsbury at the time. We had a wonderful Town Hall that had a kitchen. It had plenty of tables so that we could have two students to an eight-foot table, which gave them plenty of cutting room and sewing. They'd come Friday evening. We'd have wine and cheese then we'd have dinner. We would do a project Friday night with them. Some wanted to start what they were doing immediately. Or they were doing self-study. We ended up with a Ben and Jerry's [Vermont ice cream company.] make your own hot fudge sundae. That was the highlight of the day. On Saturday morning Mary and I each taught something. We had two classes each weekend that we offered. We had dinner at another place Saturday night. They stayed at a wonderful bed and breakfast, Maple Crest Farm, which was run by Bill and Donna Smith, right across the street. Sometimes the cows would be walking down the road. It was very scenic. Everybody loves Vermont. These ladies have become our very good friends. It's been like a family. They say it's like coming home every fall. It's been very gratifying to Mary and me.

NF: Tell about your business The Vermont Patchworks.

JM: Vermont Patchworks. I started it as a mail-order business initially. It was a lot of fun. I sold books, notions and hard to find objects. I started doing the quilt shows later as a vendor. When I was doing mail-order it worked out well. I wanted to be home with my kids. I wanted to also be able to go down to the school to help. Shrewsbury is a small community. I was active within the school. By having an answering machine, I was able to leave then come back. Fill the order. I had a good relationship with the UPS man. I left things out. He left things out. When I would go to the Post Office in the morning, the postmistress would say, 'Well, where are we going today?' I sold to Africa, Japan, Germany, France, England. It was quite exciting.

NF: I remember having special field trips with my students from Fletcher Farm School [Ludlow, Vermont.], bringing them up into the hills of Shrewsbury to your home and getting a chance to buy some of those terrific notions right there.

JM: Yes.

NF: Have advances in technology influenced your work?

JM: It most certainly has. I think when we first started off most of us used the cardboard from cereal boxes that we would cut out in the shape. For instance, if you were doing Trip Around the World, or something basic, with squares. You'd have to cut around each square. Then you would have to allow for the quarter of an inch. Now we have the rotary cutters. We have those wonderful rulers so that we can strip and do almost anything. I also see a big difference in technology with sewing machines. The accuracy is much better on the newer ones. I had a Viking for thirty years. I was going to keep it, but Mary was getting a machine. I looked at it and I tried it. Oh, dear. So I succumbed and I bought one, as well. So now my daughter-in-law [Christy.] has my old one that she's working on. But I could tell the difference. This is a much more accurate machine, which is fantastic. The quarter of an inch is much more precise. That helps me be a better seamstress.

NF: Do you use computer software at all in your designs? [both speak at same time.]

JM: I have E-Quilt. I'm not much to spend time on the computer. But when I have, I have really enjoyed it. It's able to have fabrics that you can buy. Or you can just do the colors. Then it will automatically give you the yardage. That's always helpful because I think sometimes with fabric it's hit-and-miss. You always get the wrong hit. Perhaps more of the miss.

NF: What is your favorite techniques and materials?

JM: I do a lot of half-square triangles, which is the No Waste Geese Method. You have very accurate points. If you are doing them for stars or for Flying Geese they are very precise. I've come to use that a lot.

NF: The materials?

JM: One hundred percent cottons. There are some things that we have made that have been different materials. Mary and I were involved, years ago in a whimsical quilt show. I think it debuted at Houston. Then it went to the Museum of Modern Folk Art in New York City. It was a take-off on quilt designs like Hole in the Barn Door, Flying Geese, feathers. Mary did the feathers and I did the Flying Geese. The background quilt had fabrics that I couldn't iron. I used things my friend Sarah Knight had given me. It was wonderful. Looking like the earth. I had a little model airplane that I painted. I had Flying Geese coming out on the tail. Mary did the Feathered Star. Her star had the feathers. It was a tongue-in-cheek.

NF: Have some of your quilts appeared in publications?

JM: Yes. We have been in several books, several magazines. We've been in at least three calendars. Varied different publications from Early American Life to Quilter's Newsletter. In fact Mary had one of her quilts on the cover of Quilter's Newsletter. I think as a quiltmaker that's probably one of the most exciting things that can happen.

NF: Could you describe your studio or the place where you create?

JM: Yes. When I married John, I moved to his house. He renovated the whole second floor. Two-thirds of that is my studio. I absolutely love it. When people come to the house even the men enjoy it. They think it's a fun room. As I said, it is quite large. In the center of the room I have-- they were the units that hold cards in it. That was in a bookstore here in Rutland. The Hartford Bookstore. They were the card racks. It had wonderful deep drawers. It was waist high. I've always had it. I've always wanted to make it as a unit. I never put it together. I brought it there. John put it together. Because the card unit went on top of the base, the top part of that base was not covered. So he finished it. Now I have two double Olfa mats, the very large ones on it. I can walk around as I'm cutting. The other section has my computer, the sewing machine. I have three walls of the bookcases that used to be in my shop in Shrewsbury. One is for books, the rest is fabric. I have a cabinet that has old quilts and an ironing board for quilters where you make a very large rectangular piece of wood and you put it on your existing ironing board. [pauses for 2 seconds.] That's wonderful. I don't have much closet space. That's been a problem. I tend to get messy with my fabrics. I have another design wall that I rotate quilts that I have in my collection. I also have an old apple-picking ladder that starts wider and it's narrower at the top. I have probably twenty antique tops folded on it. I'm very happy when I go into my room.

NF: Sounds wonderful. Tell me how you balance your time.

JM: I think that's always an issue. I do think that having that ten minutes in the morning and evening gives me a little structure to what I'm doing. That has made a difference.

NF: You mentioned your design wall for displaying some of your antique quilts. Do you use it as part of your creative process as well?

JM: Yes. One of the things I can take it down. I have a [pauses for 2 seconds.] flannel sheet that I've made that I can slide onto the rod. I end up pinning. There are times if you go by the blocks come down. It's difficult to put them back up. So I always pin what's on there. It's good because I have enough distance in that room that I can get back from it and look at the piece. I can get the color. "Color Tangle" is bright primary colors. In fact, I used one of Mary's marbleizing fabric in that piece. Each block was different so I would have to go back from it. Sometimes I would take a photograph of it just to give me another perspective. I'd call Mary up and she would come down. I think that having the four eyes looking at it. She would say, 'Well, do you really want this here?' So that would help. Sometimes I find in the designing, that the piece of material that you start with is the material that is giving you the problem and you have to pull it. That's the hardest thing to do when your heart just loved that fabric, but it doesn't work.

NF: Then does that fabric end up in another quilt?

JM: Yes, it does.

NF: As a secondary piece, maybe?

JM: Yes. Yes, it does. But I still have plenty of fabric. [laughs.]

NF: What do you think makes a great quilt?

JM: Mary and I both judge. One of the first categories that you look at is color, design and impact. Richard Cleveland has the expression, 'The hairs on the back of your neck go up.' You have that feeling. There's just something that identifies it. I think that you have to have those three elements in there. The color. I think the precision. Sometimes you can get away with your precision not being quite right. A truly spectacular quilt has all of those elements.

NF: Could you tell about some of the places where you have judged?

JM: The Vermont Quilt Festival. Billings has a quilt show every year and that's a judged show. [Billings Farm and Museum, Woodstock, Vermont.] Champlain Valley Quilters. It's in the Shelburne area [Vermont.]. I've judged that a number of years. Then for a good many years I did the Somers, New York. It's right outside of New York City.

NF: Where are some of the places you've taught quiltmaking?

JM: I've taught in Somers, New York, the Vermont Quilt Festival, in Maine, [Vermont.], Massachusetts, Connecticut. Basically, I'm a New England person. Mary went to the national level with her classes.

NF: Tell me about your process of choosing quilts or memorabilia for your own collection?

JM: It's a combination of things. It's something that I have to like it. The other fact that, unfortunately, is the price. I find that if the price is right then I don't have to think about it. If the price is up there I usually think twice. It has to meet higher standards. I've got into collecting. I have a nice assortment of children's sewing machines that I display on top of one of my bookcases. I have several Featherweight machines. In fact I gave one to Mary because she didn't have one. I realized I couldn't use all of these. The other it's similar to, but in between, a Featherweight and a child's machine. It's a salesman's model. It's very small and has a black suitcase that it is in. The salesman would go house to house and show this machine and take orders for that. I have antique quilts. I have several that are made in Vermont. I'm lucky to have the provenance of them because most of the quilts that I have are unknown. There are so many that haven't signed their work. Mary and I have tried to make an effort to make sure all our quilts have labels on them. Quilt tops. I like decorating with them. In my living room I have an old drying rack. I have three antique quilts that are folded in there. So they are a large part of my home.

NF: What makes a great quiltmaker?

JM: A great quiltmaker. I guess it would be the reverse. She would have to have a good sense of color. A good sense of choosing her fabrics. Fabrics that have a wide variety. She certainly would have to have precision techniques and patience.

NF: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

JM: That's so varied. I know if I say one, I'll think of so many others later. I like Michael James. Part of that is his color sense. He always works out of the box in what he's doing. Nancy Halpern is another one.

NF: How do you feel about machine quilting vs. hand quilting?

JM: Because I said early on, I'm not doing hand quilting. If we have a quilt that we are making and it is very special we have it hand quilted. We have an Amish woman who does quilting for us. There is a time that you want your quilt to be hand quilted. Mary and I sell our work and have done a lot of commissions. Most of the people will not pay what the price of the quilt would be with hand quilting. Today, the longarm machines, Janet Block does our quilting for us. She's incredible. She can do almost anything on it. But it's like anything. If you're not precise or take care in what you are doing. I've seen some very poorly done machine quilting. By and large, it's getting to be an art with what they can do. The types of materials. The thread that they use.

NF: Why is quiltmaking important in your life?

JM: I think like I said earlier because it's like a mantra to me. Things can be crazy all around you. If you go to an area it's just a safe haven. I always feel good. Except when things start going wrong and then I know, 'Okay, I'm too tired,' and I put it away.

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

JM: I don't know if they would reflect the community. I think Vermont certainly is well-known for the quilts and for antique quilts. You think of the Shelburne Museum. I think that I do a lot of different types of quilting but the reproduction quiltings are probably the ones that I keep coming back to. I think they would realize the sense of history there.

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

JM: I think they are very important. I have a cute story to tell about my grandson. He's gotten several quilts from me. Last year my two boys and their families rented a place down at Carolina Beach. [North Carolina.] Of course several of my quilts were there with the different grandchildren. My older son [Nate.] went to lie down on the couch. All at once we heard, 'No!' from Ian. That was his quilt. We all asked him, 'What's the matter?' He said, 'He's going to use up all the love.' Oh! That's one of the things I told all my grandchildren that the quilt was made with love from Mémé. It will always keep them safe at night if they have a bad dream or whatever. It was so cute. So then we had to have a discussion that the love that comes from your grandmother is always there. You can't use it up.

NF: What a wonderful story. In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history in America?

JM: One of the things that has always amazed me was the period of time where women were not allowed to go to school because it was assumed they didn't have the ability to learn. If you look at that same period, you will find Mariner's Compasses and the very elaborate quilts that took a lot of math. They did them beautifully. They were perfection. So I think that that, it helped the women.

NF: How do you think quilts can be used?

JM: Use them all over. That's what I encourage people to do. It's interesting though my second son, Richard, will not hang a quilt in his house. They're all on the beds or on the couch. But he will not hang them on the wall. I don't know if that's because I had quilts on the wall that I've stigmatized him [both laugh.] but I do think that you should be using them. I do think that they should be on the bed. If it's a very special quilt, it would be the same thing that people used to do in the olden days if they had a special quilt. The minister came to stay with them. They would roll it back at night so basically nobody slept on it.

NF: Does your older son have a preference [both speak at the same time.] on using quilts?

JM: He will do both. He has them on the bed and he does put them on the wall.

NF: His name is?

JM: His name is Nate.

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

JM: Definitely not in plastic bags. I think that the invention of the plastic bags was wonderful because they kept water away from the fabric. But in doing so there was no ability for the fabric to be able to breathe. I think that is why old sheets or pillowcases are so much better. Rerolling the quilts. Refolding them in different positions. I have several quilts that have the lines because they were always, before I purchased them, folded the same way for a number of years.

NF: So how would you recommend people address that with their own quilts if they already have a fold mark?

JM: They could try washing. If you were to wash, I would wash the quilt in the bathtub if you can get Ivory Flakes or a substitute. Then I would lay it out either on the deck or the grass with the Ivory Flakes still on the quilt and let the sun dry it. That should take care of the fold mark. You don't want to have a day with direct sun and you want it so that it's not raining. If you put it on the grass make sure kids or animals won't walk across it. If you have a deck, that's even better for drying the quilt.

NF: What has happened to the quilts that you have made over the years?

JM: I have sold a lot of my quilts. So it has not been until the last twelve years that I have been able to make some for me and my family. Most of the quilts I have been doing I've sold. We're still selling them. That's kind of hard. It's not quite giving a child away but it comes pretty close.

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

JM: One of the things that we have found in our area. We had two quilt shops. They have gone out of business. I think across the country a lot of quilt shops have closed. The Internet is now a place you can buy fabric. Both Mary and I feel strongly that we want to touch the fabric and have an idea that the color is that color that we want because you know that color is not true on the online sites. If we find a fabric that we like, that we know is okay, then we'll order online.

NF: Have you worked on some charity quilts?

JM: Yes.

NF: Will you describe some of the types?

JM: One of them was the Paramount Star, with Mary, for raising funds for the old theater in downtown. Then at the Maple Leaf Quilters group, they do quilts every year.

NF: Do they donate those quilts to any particular organization?

JM: Yes. They donate it to an organization then the organization has the raffle. So some of them have raised three to ten thousand which is quite nice.

NF: Could you tell me about some of your current projects?

JM: I'm working on a quilt. I didn't think that it was going to be a Christmas quilt but I have a lot of reds and a little bit of green so I'm thinking that it has a Noel quality to it. It is Scrappy Stars and they're on point.

NF: Is there a time period that is reflected in your mind with that piece?

JM: Yes. I've got half of the blocks sewn together. So I need to get the other half done by August which is the deadline for the quiltmaker.

NF: Jan is there anything else you'd like to add to this interview?

JM: I'm very excited that my daughter-in-law Christy, Richard's wife, has started quiltmaking. That's been exciting to watch her as she's been involved in it. I also suggest that if you could have a quilting friend. Mary and I had an exhibit of our work this year at the Vermont Quilt Festival. It was called "A Quilter's Journey." It so told the story of us. Not only having a best friend but having a best friend who quilts. Nothing can be nicer.

NF: Do you have any memories of some of the first quilt meetings that you might want to share?

JM: I think probably Richard Cleveland will not appreciate this. But the first meeting that we met him was at the Green Mountain Quilters' Guild. It hadn't been named yet. It was just an exploratory meeting. Richard got up and said that he had ironed his quilts. [antique quilts for display.] The whole room was aghast. He has never lived that down. He hates that we continue to mention it. That's a nice ending.

NF: I'd like to thank Jan Snelling McTaggart for allowing me to interview her today as part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories. Our interview concluded at 11:42 a.m. on July 17, 2009.

[interview concludes.]


“Jan Snelling McTaggart,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 18, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2070.