Wendy Hughes




Wendy Hughes




Wendy Ensign Hughes


Julee Casey Johnson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Greensboro, North Carolina


Dorothy Freeman


Note: Wendy Ensign Hughes is not a member of DAR. While this is a DAR quiltmaker documentation project, membership within the DAR is not required.

Julee Casey Johnson (JJ): My name is Julee Casey Johnson and today’s date is March 3, 2010, at 5:55pm. I am conducting an interview with Wendy Ensign Hughes in Greensboro, NC for the Quilters’ S.O.S.-Save Our Stories Project. We are doing this through the American Heritage Committee of the North Carolina State Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Wendy Ensign Hughes is a quilter. Okay, well Wendy thank you for having me over to your home today.

Wendy Ensign Hughes (WH): Thank you for coming.

JJ: Now tell me about the quilt that we’re looking at now.

WH: Alright this quilt is called “Celestial Tree of Life.” I made it for my son. I started it when he was in high school. He was preparing to serve a mission and I kind of wanted to get it, I didn’t actually get it done in time for him to leave. He probably wouldn’t have needed it where he was going anyway. But a lot of the components in the quilt reflect him and his personality. He was a Boy Scout, Eagle Scout. He served a couple of summers at Boy Scout camp. So, I put the trees in. The Tree of Life, I’ve always liked that pattern. I did just for interest, I put the seasons in each corner – winter, spring, summer and fall, and then of course the middle center medallion Tree of Life is the celestial one. It’s just some spiritual components, kind of a little message for him as he was heading off, growing up, just the tree of life represents the love of God and I kind of wanted him to just have that message. And then this little border that goes around the medallion center is a Delectable Mountains pattern. So, it’s just a reflection of all of our love of nature, and mountains and the trees.

JJ: And the Boy Scout component, that’s represented by the--

WH: Just the trees.

JJ: Oh, the trees. Oh. Okay. And this mission that he was going on. Tell me about that.

WH: Well, he served two years for the church in Jamaica. So, he didn’t take the quilt with him. I knew he was going to go to Jamaica and he wouldn’t have need of the quilt, so I didn’t rush to finish it. It didn’t actually get finished until about 3 years ago. This was one of the first quilts that I longarm quilted. When I got my machine, I sort of practiced on this one, although I did do several others before I got to this one because I wanted to be able to do it right.

JJ: So, what were you using before you got the longarm?

WH: Oh, for over 20 years I hand quilted. This was one of the first ones that I used the longarm quilt machine for.

JJ: Did you find it difficult to learn how to do it?

WH: It’s not as easy as you would think. It took quite a few months to feel like I was little bit more proficient. But I chose this just because it has a lot of personal significance and it’s also very typical of my style – sort of traditional look. I use lots of scraps, lots of pieces and even the back was pieced. Just little bits and pieces of the front got put in the back and then just various fabrics that just matched. So, it’s very typical of what I do.

JJ: Beautiful. So, did you sit down and design, make a design?

WH: No. I mean I saw a similar quilt in a magazine, but almost every quilt I’ve made it just starts at some point and just grows. I very rarely plan a quilt from start to finish. I just sort of let it progress.

JJ: So, it takes on a life of its own.

WH: It does.

JJ: That’s wonderful. Well, the special meaning, definitely you’ve already talked about that. And you chose this quilt because it was your first longarm quilt, or the significance of it as well?

WH: Well, that’s part of it because that is what I do now. So, it kind of incorporates you know what I was doing before and just three years ago I started the longarm quilting.

JJ: So, your son has this quilt?

WH: Yes, he sent it to me so I could share it.

JJ: Where is he now?

WH: He’s in engineering school in Norfolk, Virginia.

JJ: Oh. Okay so tell me about your interest in quilt making. How old were you when you started quilt making?

WH: I’ve had some sort of needle in my hand since I was a little kid. My cousin taught me how to crochet when I was eight and I’ve been doing something ever since. When I spent my allowance, it was collecting yarn.

JJ: Oh wow.

WH: So, I learned how to crochet, knit, cross stitch, candlewick, embroidery. And then I always knew that I would get into quilting, but it didn’t really get started until after I was married, in my early 20s.

JJ: So how long have you been quilting?

WH: More than 25 years.

JJ: Where did you grow up?

WH: I was born in Utah. My father’s family’s in Utah. My mother’s family’s in Colorado. But we moved to the east coast, to Virginia when I was seven. My parents are still up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

JJ: So, who taught you how to quilt then? It was after you were married.

WH: I was self-taught.

JJ: Self-taught?

WH: Yeah, I knew how to use a sewing machine. I can sew clothes. But my grandmother, my mother’s mother was my inspiration. She died when I was 15. She made an afghan for each of her grandchildren for high school graduation and a quilt for when they got married. I was the third grandchild and she died when I was 15. And my sister was the oldest and she was only 17, so I think she was sort of thinking ahead. She knew she needed to get on the ball because she had I think at least 5 if not 6 of the quilts made for her 8 grandchildren, actually the eighth grandchild wasn’t born before she died. But she had at least 5 or 6 done before.

JJ: So, you still received the quilt when you got married?

WH: Yes, yes.

JJ: That’s lovely. So, the afghan, was that crocheted?

WH: Yes.

JJ: Did she live near you?

WH: She was in Colorado.
JJ: She was in Colorado. Wow. Did you go back often?

WH: About every two years. We’d take a few weeks in the summer for a visit. And I remember going out to the little town, east of Colorado Springs, a little town called Simla [Colorado.]. It was literally the little town on the prairie, and we visited her sister who showed us her quilts. I remember that memory as a teenager. And she was--her name was Phyllis Shipman Harris. She was always busy doing some kind of hand work. I imagine that in the evenings she sat down and cut out the little pieces or hand stitched. She hand stitched most everything. There were--we did find a few blocks after she died that she had done by machine but that was rare.

JJ: So, this was your grandmother or her sister?

WH: My grandmother.

JJ: And did her sister?

WH: She quilted as well.

JJ: Who has all those quilts? Just different family members?

WH: She made quilts. Let me back up. She was raising her children, her three children, my mother and her two brothers pretty much during the 30s and so the quilts that she made were utilitarian quilts, so she pieced and quilted or tied to cover her family. And we were given some. Some of them we used as picnic blankets and just to cover us at night. And most of them pretty much got used until they wore out. But I still have one and I have another one that I recreated. It was just like this one over here with the little squares, but we used it so much that it started disintegrating. But I was given a box of her scrap fabric and a lot of the pieces were already cut out, so I just took all of those scraps, put it with red squares and pretty much recreated it. That one was tied, just like the original.

JJ: Oh wow. And so how long would it take to make a quilt like that?

WH: I did that one summer in a few weeks. But that was done by machine. She always did it by hand.

JJ: In tiny blocks like that?

WH: Yes.

JJ: Wow. So, do you think the style of quilting out in Colorado would be different from the east coast?

WH: Some of the patterns are definitely different. There’s different styles and sometimes it’s just what was popular during a certain time period. Everybody was working on the same style quilt.

JJ: Do you think they had quilting bees? Like my grandmother and mother always, I remember coming home to see the ladies over quilting.

WH: Yes, they did.

JJ: How many hours a week do you quilt now, do you think?

WH: Well because I have this longarm quilting business I quilt every evening for maybe anywhere from 2 to 5 hours.

JJ: Wow. After working?

WH: Yes, most--after I have my daytime job in the schools, then head home and do the business in the evening.

JJ: And what is your daytime job?

WH: I am a sign language interpreter in the schools.

JJ: Now do you ever take any of your quilts to school to use as a teaching tool?

WH: I have. In fact, this quilt that I brought today I have taken to school. Because I work with deaf children sometimes as they’re learning language these concepts are difficult. But this I’ve used as we’ve talked about the seasons, because the colors used in the four corners of the quilt. It’s kind of a subtle thing. But as I’m teaching those little deaf children about the seasons, I asked them to pick out and sign what is this season and what’s that season? And they have to really study that a little bit because it’s not clear. It’s not a picture of a child on the beach or somebody playing in the snow. It’s a little more subtle. So, I have used that to help teach that concept.

JJ: Very symbolic.

WH: Yes, and I have brought quilts and done little demonstrations for the kids as they’re doing geometry in school.

JJ: Oh, that would be perfect.

WH: Yeah. They’re learning the shapes and how all of this is put together. Yeah, I’ve done it.

JJ: Tell me about your business. How long have you been--

WH: I started the longarm quilting business just over 3 years ago, when we moved to North Carolina from Fredericksburg, Virginia.

JJ: You’ve only been here 3 years?

WH: Yes, about three and a half. And I was hoping to be able to stay home and do that. We’ve got my husband’s parents who retired down here and that’s why we moved, to be closer to them. And I was hoping that I could do that and help take care of them and my family, but I really needed an extra income, so I’m doing both.

JJ: How do you advertise or is it just word of mouth?

WH: It’s just word of mouth.

JJ: So, I wouldn’t open up a Southern Living and find an ad for your quilts?

WH: Nope.

JJ: What do you call your business?

WH: It’s called Hughes Design. Hughes Design. And I have a faithful group of clients that are constantly producing quilt tops. They keep me very busy.

JJ: Oh, so they do the quilt tops?

WH: They do the quilt tops and I do the quilting.

JJ: I was thinking you did the entire piece.

WH: Not typically. I have done some.

JJ: Two to five hours a night. I would guess that you love what you do. [laughs.]

WH: I do.

JJ: We’ve already talked about the quiltmakers: your family and friends, your grandmother, your cousin that taught you to crochet. Was she a quilter?

WH: I think that she can quilt. I’m not sure that she does now. I have a sister that quilts and my mother-in-law. I got her into it. My daughter, my oldest daughter, has made a couple of quilts. She made a couple.

JJ: Now how does the quilt making impact your family?

WH: [laughs.] Well, my daughters are all very artistic and I think because I am a quilter, they have learned to appreciate fabric. They, like me, love color, love working with color, and I’ll even ask their advice sometimes on thread color for a certain job, or yeah, they’ll help me with designs. My husband’s also an artist and he’s been involved helping me, too. He’s also very, very supportive of the business and he’s a woodworker and he’s made me thread racks and my table. He made my rotary cutter ruler holder. He’s very supportive. And I think the downside: I’m not much into cooking or cleaning. [laughs.] But they’re very patient with my hobby and business.

JJ: Your daughters, what is their art?

WH: My oldest daughter has a degree in interior architecture. She went through the art program at UNCG. She also is a photographer now. And my second daughter is in the art program at UNCG, currently, as a fine artist, painter. And my youngest daughter is a senior in high school at Weaver Academy. She’s into fine art, watercolors and illustration and is probably going to be heading off to an art school this fall.

JJ: Interesting. All artists. That’s wonderful. Now when you went to school you went for sign language. Were you in an art program as well?

WH: No, I really just did quilting and other needlework as a hobby. I have a degree in French. But I didn’t do anything with that. The sign language came later.

JJ: What do you find pleasing about quilt making?

WH: For me, it’s an artistic expression. It’s relaxing. And I’ve had a lot of people make comments before that they wish they knew how; they wish they had the patience for it. And I always turn the question back and ask, ’What do you do in your spare time?’ because everybody fills their spare time some way, whether it’s reading or golf or cooking or whatever and this is just my outlet.

JJ: Did anybody ever ask you to teach them?

WH: Yes, I’ve taught. Not anything really formal. I haven’t taught. I’ve taught classes at the quilt guild. I’ve taught at church. I’ve taught youth groups, but not professionally.

JJ: So, are you a member of a quilt guild?

WH: Yes, I’m a member of the Piedmont Quilter’s Guild here in Greensboro.

JJ: How large is that group?

WH: It’s between one and two hundred members.

JJ: Wow. I don’t even--do you all get together? Once a month?

WH: Once a month. We meet. There’s programs. Always demonstrations, speakers, trunk shows, they show their work.

JJ: So, with that many members, I know they don’t all come at the same time. But where do you meet?

WH; We meet down Horse Pen Creek at the Catholic Church.

JJ: Oh right. I can’t remember the name of the church either. We used to live right there. Oh wow, that’s good.

WH: I would say most months we have probably about 75 people.

JJ: That’s a really good turnout. So, what, does this guild put on shows?

WH: Yes, every two years we do a show. We’re planning one this coming October.

JJ: And where will that take place?

WH: That’ll be at the Girl Scout building down Market Street. West Market. They do shows every 2 years. They’re very involved in the community. There’s all kinds of community outreach programs. They make Project Linus quilts for children who are either in the hospital or in need. The police will pick children up out of their homes sometimes and the quilts are given to them.

JJ: Oh, so the quilts they would make for Project Linus wouldn’t be a large quilt, like the one you made for your son, more like a baby quilt?

WH: Yes,

JJ: So, what aspects of quilting do you not enjoy?

WH: I like most of the process. I like cutting, I like fabric, I like piecing, I like the quilting. Maybe doing the binding is probably my least favorite part of it but it’s alright. I think I’ve made so many quilts over the years, I’ve learned to like each part of it.

JJ: How many quilts do you think you’ve made?

WH: Probably close to 100.

JJ: So, you wouldn’t have taken a picture of each one and kept a scrapbook of it?

WH: No, I have, most of them. I started a project a few years ago. When we moved it kind of stalled. But for about 3 years I was putting together baby quilts for any friends and co-workers who were expecting a baby. They were little 9-patch quilts and I think to this point I’ve made over 60 of those.

JJ: Oh my gosh. What a treasure.

WH: It was fun. To me it was a little bit more personal. More meaningful.

JJ: Let’s see. I think so. Has technology influenced your work?

WH: Yes.

JJ: Well, obviously with your longarm machine.

WH: Yes. With the machine I’ve been able to certainly quilt faster. I used to hand quilt all the time, usually a few hours most evenings after the children went to bed. And it would take me about 3 months to hand quilt a full-size quilt and now I can do a full-size quilt in a day on the longarm. It’s a whole different look and I appreciate both looks. The hand quilting is a wonderful process. I actually kind of miss it. It’s very meditative.

JJ: And you can carry it with you.

WH: Yes, you can sit there and listen to the TV as I work. But I haven’t done that really since I started the business. I just don’t have time.

JJ: So, you’re not able to listen to the TV or music while you’re doing the machine?

WH: While I work, I plug in my iPod. I listen to books and music. That helps because I like to have my head thinking of something. I love listening to books while I work.

JJ: What are your favorite techniques and materials?

WH: Well, I am a scrap quilter. There’s no doubt about that. And I don’t know how my grandmother and everyone else in the past lived without a rotary cutter. I love my rotary cutter and I love my little machine. I use my mother’s old featherweight. Singer Featherweight. I’ve made practically every quilt on that little machine. It’s wonderful. It does a perfect straight stitch and that’s all I need.

JJ: Wow. Tell us about the studio. The place where you create.

WH: That room was not meant to be my studio, but it ended up being perfect. We were supposed to have it in the upstairs bedroom. But the longarm machine, the table part is one big heavy piece of metal, and we couldn’t get it down the hallway, so we quickly moved the furniture and put it in the front hall, or the front room. And it turned out perfect because the customers can come right into the room. Beautiful windows. It’s a great space. And like I said before, my husband has made me different tools that help keep it comfortable. It’s good. And I do have a sewing room upstairs for my regular sewing machines and cutting table. An extra room.

JJ: Something I want to ask you about. You said you’re a scrap quilter. Does that mean you look at an old shirt or something and say, ‘That would be great for my scrap bag.’ You don’t mean like that?

WH: Well, sometimes, in fact I’ve actually been known to go up to some people and admire their skirt or their shirt and say that would make a great quilt and instead of giving it to Goodwill if they would give it to me when they’re done, I would take it. And one time one lady did take me up on the offer and gave me her skirt. And I did save my children’s clothes even though I haven’t gotten to make quilts out of them yet, I’ve started cutting the clothes into pieces, getting ready to do it.

JJ: Do you think they’ll recognize and say, “That was my Easter dress.”

WH: Yes, definitely. I think it’s a reflection of my past. I’m also an amateur genealogist and I know a lot of my family’s history. I am a daughter of not only pioneers, but I am a daughter of puritans. I know my heritage and I think the quilts I make reflect my heritage. Because when they were coming across the plains or working their farms in New England or Virginia or North Carolina--I have family from all those areas--they had to work with what they had. And they used their little scraps, their little pieces and I just am drawn to that, that kind of quilt. I love to see lots of little pieces because even though I have far more fabric than they ever had in their lives I still like using little pieces that might otherwise have gotten thrown out.

JJ: I think that’s great. Well, tell me how you balance your time. I know you are--[laughs.] --I mean, I’m wondering do you ever sleep?

WH: It’s hard. I work a lot and I have and try and discipline myself. I find some nights it’s hard to make myself get in there and work but sometimes if I shut down it’s with a book or with a computer game. But I try to keep myself disciplined. Usually just knowing that people are waiting for their quilts keep me motivated to keep working.

JJ: So, when someone comes in and asks you to do a quilt how quickly do they expect you to have it done?

WH: Well, I’ve gotten a lot of business and my business is growing. I had a huge backload last fall and I wish I could keep my turnaround time to about two weeks but the more quilts I get in I just can’t do it, so as long as they understand that I’ll get to it in turn, then it’s fine, but I have taken as long as 8 to 10 weeks to get some quilts back, but if I get backed up that’s all I can do.

JJ: Do you ever foresee this business growing and you taking on other quilters?

WH: Not yet. Not while I’m doing two jobs.

JJ: We talked--you don’t use a design wall?

WH: No. I kind of let it grow. That’s kind of how this quilt on the wall happened. I knew that I wanted to do the light to dark, but the colors grouping just kind of happened. I just started. I didn’t have the room to lay out all the pieces, so I just started with four rows and once I had laid out four rows, I stitched it together and then laid out the next four rows. And so, it just kind of grew.

JJ: So, you laid it out from the bottom?

WH: Yes, it actually originally hung horizontally.

JJ: And you call this?

WH: It’s a watercolor quilt.

JJ: That is fabulous.

WH: Thank you. It won a Best in Show.

JJ: It did?

WH: In the Virginia Star Quilters Show.

JJ: When was that?

WH: I want to say early 90s. I can’t remember exactly what year.

JJ: So, have you won other prizes?

WH: Yeah. Most--I want to say most quilts that I’ve done have won at least first place if not second. I think, because of the use of a lot of pieces and of color there’s a lot of complexity to them.

JJ: Is that how they’re judged in these contests?

WH: Sometimes. The judges are looking for originality. Actually, this show, in the Virginia Star Quilters shows were all Viewers’ choice. It didn’t have a judge, actually judge it.

JJ: Great. What do you think makes a great quilt?

WH: I think most quilts are great, myself. I have done quilts for other people for a long time. Even before I started the longarm business, I hand quilted other quilts for people. Let me tell you a story of one that I did. My friend asked me to finish off two quilt tops that her grandmother had made but the pieces were not pre-washed. A lot of muslin pieces and there were a lot of different fabrics in there and before I could hand quilt it it really needed to be washed. And I put it in the washing machine on gentle but when I went to pull it out it was, it looked like it was in shreds, and it really scared me. I had to do a lot of repair work on it. It really was not very well made. The design was very complex, but the piecing was not really well done. However, once it was repaired and then quilted it was just beautiful, a gorgeous quilt, probably pieced in the 30s or 40s. And I thought it was a great quilt. To just look at. It may not have been the most well-made quilt. But I think just in general though, what I think makes a really successful quilt is the use of color, I think. Color and I like to see originality in quilts. I think it’s important to bring your own personality into a piece. And workmanship I think is important. I think a really great quilt has those three components. Still, even those that I’ve worked on that aren’t really well made or the colors aren’t the best, I still like them all. [laughs.]

JJ: [laughs.] They’re your babies. What makes a quilt artistically powerful? That’s what you’re describing there. I would say both of these are artistically powerful.

WH: Thank you.

JJ: They really tell a story. And what makes a great quiltmaker?

WH: I think that’s a difficult question. Because it’s like asking what makes a good person? I think, like I say, some quilts that I’ve have done have not been very well made but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good quiltmaker. There’s a lot of wonderful people and especially those I’ve known at the guild who will put together Linus quilts and other pieces for charity. I just think--it’s hard to explain, what makes a good quiltmaker is the same answers as what makes a good person.

JJ: Are there any artists who have influenced your work?

WH: Not really. I think it’s more my ancestors. Sort of like I explained previously, about using scraps. I think it’s that legacy that was passed onto me, is probably my biggest inspiration.

JJ: We’ve kind of already talked about machine quilting hand quilting and longarm quilting. Do you value one over the other?

WH: No. I love seeing a really nicely done hand quilted quilt. I think it’s beautiful. And I think longarm quilting looks a little bit different. It’s a different kind of art form in a way and I really love how it looks too. And I don’t think one can be judged against another. I think they’re both equally valuable.

JJ: And you’ve kind of talked all about this as well, but why is quilt making important to your life.

WH: Again, it started as a hobby and it’s just what I enjoy doing. It’s how I express myself creatively.

JJ: Do you ever feel like it crowds out other things you like to do? You said you like to do lots of other needlework.

WH: It’s interesting. I’ve heard other people say the same thing. Once you start quilting you really don’t do the other things anymore. I rarely cross stitch or do embroidery anymore. Once you get into quilting you rarely ever go back or do anything different anymore.

JJ: It’s just that much more satisfying?

WH: I’m not sure what it is. I think part of it is, at least for me, the fact that it’s something you can use as opposed to -- Well, I definitely hang them on the wall, just like the stockings that I’ve done for my children, that has a use. And I did cross stitch or embroidery for their stockings, but you know, a quilt, it covers your bed, you wrap up. My girls are always found curled up in a quilt in front of the TV or in bed reading a book with a quilt. There’s just something warm and comforting about a quilt. I don’t know. That and just, again, using the fabrics, the textiles, I just love fabric. I love the feel of it, I love working with it. It’s hard to explain really why. I just do.

JJ: It’s like a painting that you created out of fabric.

WH: When my children were young, that was--I thought I was being very philosophical at the time, I thought this was just so smart. Everything that you do as a young mother, gets undone. You cook, and they eat it. You clean up, it gets messed up again. You mow the lawn, it grows. Everything gets undone. But to make a quilt meant that I was doing something that stayed.

JJ: Yeah.

WH: I thought that was very profound. [laughs.]

JJ: It is very profound. Now do you think your son sleeps under this quilt or is it just to look at?

WH: I don’t know that he does sleep with this one. I think he’s actually sleeping under a different quilt.

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

WH: It’s interesting. I’ve thought about this before because my family would tell you this is part of our world. There’s other worlds in American life I know nothing about. I know nothing about the NASCAR world or the golfing community or any other different American pastimes. I don’t know that every home is affected by quilts, but this home is and it’s part of my heritage, part of my world, part of my family.

JJ: Let’s pause for just a second. Well Wendy is there anything else you’d like to add to this interview?

WH: I don’t think so. I really appreciate you asking the questions. It’s a big part of my life and I think what you’re doing with this project is really a great idea.

JJ: You’ve been so interesting to talk to. I’m thrilled to be here today. I’d like to thank Wendy for allowing me to interview her today as part of the S.O.S. Save Our Stories. Our interview concluded at 6:38 p.m. on March 3, 2010. And that was Wendy Ensign Hughes.


“Wendy Hughes,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2110.