Joann Gordon




Joann Gordon




Joann Kensler Gordon


Emily Temple

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Georgia Bonesteel


Hartwell, Georgia


Joann Kensler Gordon


Emily Temple (ET): My name is Emily Temple and today's date is February 25, 2010 at 3:04. I am conducting an interview with Joann Kensler Gordon in the Arts Center for the Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories project. We are doing this through the American Heritage Committee of the Georgia State Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Joann Kensler Gordon is a quilter and is a member of the John Benson Chapter. Ok, Joann, tell me about the quilt you brought today.

Joann Kensler Gordon (JKG): The quilt I brought today is called "Cock of the South," and it relates to my husband who is a Gordon, and we're of Scottish decent, both of us, but in Scotland, the Gordons are called the Cock of the North, and I think that was mainly because at one time the Gordons, who lived up near Inverness and that area, were the main clan and that's how that particular, those Gordons considered themselves. But it happens to be made from a panel that I purchased and the cock is the pheasant as it is for the Gordon name, but there are pheasants in the panel and then I added the other elements that go around it.

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

JKG: I think I brought this one because my husband and I are so involved in Scottish things and in a lot of different ways; it represented several aspects of our life together.

ET: And what do you think someone viewing your quilt might conclude about you?

JKG: [pause for 5 seconds.] I'm not sure that someone looking at this quilt is going to conclude anything in particular about me personally, unless they read what is on the quilt label, unless they know the story I've put into it.

ET: And they couldn't tell from looking at the quilt that you were Scottish?

JKG: No, no, the colors are--like the Gordon colors are green and blue and yellow and this is mainly fall colors. And unless you read the quilt label, you're not gonna know any of the importance.

ET: If they read the quilt label then what would that tell them about you?

JKG: That we're very interested in our Scottish heritage.

ET: How do you use this quilt?

JKG: It's used as a wall hanging. It's large enough for a double bed, but it's not, I mean it can be used as a quilt, but right now we're using it as a wall hanging.

ET: What are your plans for this quilt?

JKG: It'll be handed down to one of our sons.

ET: Are you going to make the other son one?

JKG: No--he might-- I have to make one for my side of the family, so he might get one of those.

ET: Oh, ok. Just don't leave him out.

JKG: That's right.

ET: Ok, tell me about your interest in quilt making.

JKG: On my father's [Orville A. Kensler.] side, my grandmother [Mattie Mable Uncapher Kensler.] from his side, his mother, made quilts. And she's also the one who taught me how to crochet and to knit and my mother taught me to embroider, but all of those sewing skills were basically enhanced by that grandmother. And since she made quilts, even though I was never around her when she made them--I don't have any memories of sitting under the quilting frame or anything like that, but she's the one who influenced me.

ET: Ok, what age did you start quilt making?

JKG: Oh, [laughs.] when I was about 52?

ET: So, [laughs.] you allowed it a while to assimilate then?

JKG: Well, I thought quilt making was pretty complicated, so I thought I had to be around people who made quilts, and I never tried it on my own. But when we moved to Hartwell [Georgia.], and they had the guild, I joined them and that's when I got started on it.

ET: From whom did you learn to quilt?

JKG: To actually learn to quilt, I learned from Lynne Shaw and Sue Lamble who are members of the Quilt Guild.

ET: Very good ones too.

JKG: Yes, they were very nice, I have to say. My first quilt-- what we--what my husband and I call "The Gordon" quilt. And in that quilt there are pieces of tartan, and he designed how he wanted it put together and that sort of thing. And I did some embroidery work on it. And then I quilted it. So, when I took it to the quilt guild and Sue and Lynne, oh, they were so full of praise and how wonderful it was, and I thought, 'Well, this is great, this is not bad,' so I kept on working on other things, and about two years later I got that first quilt out, and I looked at it and I thought I cannot believe [laughs.] that they said it was just great. There was so much--there's so much more quilting that needed to be put onto it, but they were so nice and so encouraging that they kept me going, so--

ET: That's what you have to do

JKG: That's right. [laughs.]

ET: For an apprentice.

ET: How many hours a week do you quilt?

JKG: Depending on what I'm doing, and what I'm working on. If I'm actually quilting, it could be eight hours a day. If I'm sitting at the quilt rack and quilting it could be longer. If I'm piecing something together, that's--that could only be five or six hours a day, but I'm usually doing something every day.

ET: What is your first memory? What is your first quilt memory?

JKG: [pause for 5 seconds.] When I got married, my grandmother [Mattie M. Kensler.] had made a Double Wedding Ring quilt for me, and that's the first quilt that I remember. Now I know that she made quilts and I've seen some of them since, but I don't ever remember seeing them necessarily when we went to her house or anything else, but when I opened the box and that was my wedding present from her, that was special.

ET: Are there any other quiltmakers among your family or friends? Please tell me about them.

JKG: Several of my friends, obviously, since I'm in the guild, quilt, and as far as my family is concerned, of course, my grandmother that I had mentioned, and her daughter, [Isabelle Marie Kensler.] my aunt, quilts and she and I exchange letters sometimes about quilting and recently she sent me some of my grandmother's quilt patterns that she made out of cardboard, so I'll be using those on my future quilts of my own.

ET: What a treasure.

JKG: Oh, yeah, that's what I felt like too. My mother, [Hyla E. Moore Kensler.] who did not quilt--my mother sewed and she made some of our clothes and she taught me how to embroider--but I never thought about it until recently when I mentioned some quilts that her mother had made, my Grandmother [Lillian E. Rucker. ] Moore. Well, my mother just piped up and said that 'My mother couldn't sew.' And I remember looking at some of these quilts and I know that she made [them.] and thinking, 'Well, she made those when she was much older' [laughs.] and apparently it wasn't because she was older, but she wasn't the best seamstress in the world. But it's still nice to have those.

ET: But, of course.

ET: How does quilt making impact your family?

JKG: Well, my daughters-in-law [Sheri R. Bartlett Gordon and Edna Gail Greer Gordon.] are going to be overwhelmed with quilts [laughs.] and the quilt making, if you get into it, it just has kind of taken over my part of the house. I have a special room that I use for sewing, and I sit in the den, in a special section of the den quilting; I don't want to miss TV or something, but it's impacted it a lot. Since I retired it has given me a focus to my life. Before, it was teaching [school.] and now it's making quilts, so it's impacted it quite a bit.

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

JKG: I haven't had a-- since I started quilting--I haven't had a difficult time like, you know, losing a loved one or being sick, or anything like that, but I do know that if I get upset or if I am stressed or when I was teaching and I had a bad day at school, and I would come home, if I could just sit down at the quilt frame and quilt for 10 or 15 minutes, it just seemed to all go away. So, I've always told people that quilting is my therapy.

ET: Good, we all need therapy.

JKG: Yeah. [laughs.]

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

JKG: [pause for 5 seconds.] Well, my mother was raised during the Depression, and she was constantly stockpiling things. And she had food that she was never going to be able to eat in a lifetime, but she had it stored there in case she needed it. And I seem to have picked up that trait to an extent because when we have workdays and people were cutting things out and I would go to throw something away and there would be fabric in the trash can, I would take the fabric out of the trash can. And everybody was teasing me about that, so I used it to make small squares or half square triangles, and I have put together an entire quilt that I call my "Trash Quilt." And when I take it to a guild meeting, people go through it, and they can pick out all their material [laughs.] that is in my quilt.

ET: What do you find pleasing about quilt making?

JKG: [pause for 10 seconds.] For me the best part is the hand quilting, but it's also being able to create something, and you don't have to have a particular signature. It's not that somebody is going to look at that quilt and say, 'Oh, well, that's Joann's,' like an artist that focuses on sun flowers or whatever they focus on and that becomes their trademark. With quilting, you can choose different patterns or even the same pattern and use different materials to make it look totally different and just the aspect of the creation part is fun.

ET: What aspect of quilt making do you not enjoy?

JKG: Trying to put together fabrics that match, that are going to actually work.

ET: [laughs.] That's a hard problem.

JKG: Yeah.

ET: What art or quilt group do you belong to?

JKG: I belong to Quilters from the Hart in Hartwell, Georgia.

ET: Have advances in technology influenced your work? And if so, how?

JKG: Oh, the rotary cutter, obviously, for me is the most important thing. I don't have a sewing machine that has all-- that is computerized, that has all the different stitches on it, and so forth, so that part hasn't influenced. I guess it's mainly the rulers and the rotary cutter so that your work is more uniform, your pieces are more uniform.

ET: What are your favorite techniques and materials?

JKG: I love batiks and I love the jewel tones as far as fabric is concerned. Favorite technique, I'm not sure.

ET: Describe your studio or the place that you create.

JKG: We live in a small house that was built in the 1950's and the back part of the house has been added onto, so the room that I use is now situated directly in the middle of the house. If you want to get to the bedrooms or the bathroom, you have to go through that room. But that's my quilt room. That's the only place we can do it. And, it's very crowded and it's usually messy and if it's not, that means that company's coming and once they leave, I can't find anything that was there before, so it just kind of stays a mess.

ET: As it should be.

JKG: Yes.

ET: Tell me how you balance your time.

JKG: Since I retired, my time is my own, so I don't have to balance it like I did before. So now, I basically do what I want to do when I want to do it until either my husband needs to go do something or he says he wants to do something or go someplace in particular or I have a meeting to go to, so in reality the calendar has become more important to me now than it was when I was teaching. When you're teaching, or you have a job, you know what you're going to be doing five days a week. So, now, if it's not on the calendar, as far as I'm concerned, the day is for me.

ET: You can quilt.

JKG: I can quilt. Now, my house is suffering. [laughs.]

ET: That is beside the point entirely.

JKG: That's right.

ET: Do you use a design wall? And if so, in what way does that enhance your creative process? And if not, how do you go about designing your quilts?

JKG: I do use a design wall. I don't have, since our house is so small [the way the rooms are situated.] I don't have a specific place to put up a design wall, but what I have done, is behind my sewing machine, I have a quilt that hangs on the wall. When I need the design wall, then I put up a piece of flannel over that quilt which gives it that white background, and then I can use that to design the quilt. Sometimes without the design wall, I think it would be very difficult to make some quilts, so I have found it very useful to have a design wall. I didn't used to think so, but since I've continued to do this crazy thing--

ET: If you've got one, do you use it?

JKG: Oh, absolutely.

ET: Ok, the third category. What makes you--what do you think makes a great quilt?

JKG: I think any quilt [pause for 3 seconds.] I think it depends on how you're asking that question. I think if it is somebody who is looking at the quilt, you might have a different answer as opposed to the one who made the quilt. As far as a great quilt for me, since I made it, I think a great quilt is whatever brings joy. Either the quiltmaker, or the person looking at it, or the person who is going to use it.

ET: Very good. Ok, what makes a quilt artistically powerful?

JKG: I think either the way quilter has used the material. And sometimes--and the colors in the material. And sometimes the way it's been quilted will enhance it artistically.

ET: What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or special collection?

JKG: Anything that is well done. Anything, whether it is a wall hanging, a bed size quilt or a throw, anything that has been well done, well-constructed, well thought out, and has been put together in an artistic way.

ET: Very good. What makes a great quiltmaker?

JKG: [pause for 8 seconds.] I think that's all in who is determining what great is. But I really think it's anybody who continues to make quilts because they just enjoy the process. And enjoy, maybe even the giving of the quilt to somebody else and receiving that joy back.

ET: Ok, whose works are you drawn to and why?

JKG: I think I'm drawn to--I'm drawn to quilts that are pretty in my mind, and sometimes those quilts are done in pastels, and sometimes those are done in bright colors, so it's not the matter of the color, it's just how that quiltmaker has put that quilt together and she's used those colors to make a statement of some sort.

ET: So no one in particular?

JKG: No.

ET: Which artists have influenced you?

JKG: I don't think any artists have influenced me. There are aspects of different things that I like, but I don't make quilts that look like a particular artist.

ET: All right, how do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting? And what about longarm quilting?

JKG: I used to think that the only 'true' quilt was hand quilted. As I get older and I realize there are a lot of quilts that I still want to make, and I'm not going to have enough time to make all of them, and they can't all be hand quilted, then I think it's fine, well, it's fine with me, if the quilt is either machine quilted or done on a longarm. You know, if you're going to make a quilt for a child to use that he is going to drag around and you hope, wear out, then you don't want to spend that time on hand quilting. If you want to give a quilt as a wedding present that you think is good enough to become an heirloom and to be handed down, then maybe you want to spend the time. But, I think that any way a quilt can be enhanced by the quilting, whether its machine or hand quilting, is fine.

ET: Ok, the function and meaning of quilts in American life. Why is quilt making important to your life?

JKG: It seems to give me some balance. It gives me joy; it gives me joy for a lot of different reasons. I mean personally, it gives me joy to be able to create something and it gives me joy to be able to quilt it. But since I'm not making quilts just for myself, but I'm making quilts that others can use, since we, in the guild, make quilts, you know, for hospitals, for the police, or the firemen, and to be able to give some of that warmth and joy you get from a quilt, to someone else, is important. And sometimes, nowadays, you can't touch people's lives except from the outside. And sometimes I feel like we do.

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

JKG: I'm not sure-- I mean, my quilts don't use patterns or come up with patterns. I don't design quilts so that they look like they're from Georgia or they look like they're from Hartwell, and I'm not sure my quilts reflect community or region.

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

JKG: I think there is a comeback in quilts. And people are appreciating them more and more. But, I know, that quilts used to be so important to people and they were important to the women in America because a lot of times, the only way they could express themselves was through quilting. And I know that quilts, when they first started out maybe in America, they were just a utility quilt. They were just there to perform a function, you know, keeping people warm, but eventually women used that same aspect but then tried to beautify it by adding more color or different patterns or different quilting to hold the quilts together. So, I think it was very important.

ET: In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history in America? You touched on it there some.

JKG: Right. Well, I think nowadays, if you do any research on quilts or quilting patterns or the different kinds of quilting, it's very interesting in how people did use it, how women did use it. For instance, you have the Amish quilts, and they don't have very many patterns, they don't have a whole lot of different colors and so forth, but it was their quilting, it was their only way to express themselves. And I think the same thing is true in a lot of cases because women weren't as free as they are nowadays. So now that women have more freedom, we find ourselves a lot of times, going back to the old patterns, the old reproduction materials. So, psychologically, that's kind of interesting.

ET: True, true. What about the signature quilts and stuff like that? They were special along the line.

JKG: They were, and I have one that was made by my grandmother [Lillian E. Rucker Moore.] or I'm not positive how it was made, but her name is on it. I've got aunts who have their name on it and many of the names that are on that quilt, I recognize as being from the place where my mother was born. But because those quilts don't have labels on them, nobody in the future is going to know.

ET: That's another important thing, that's the labels.

JKG: Absolutely.

ET: It has not been touched on anywhere and that's the thing we really need to emphasize.

JKG: It's true. And I mean, a lot of times, I know myself, personally, when I am finished with a quilt, I'm finished with it. And I'm glad I'm finished with it so I can move on to the next one. So, it's hard for me to go back and put a label on it. But unless you put a label on it, it's just a quilt. I mean, it's not 'just' a quilt, but if you want that quilt to have meaning or if when you were making that quilt, there was meaning in what you were doing, you need to put a label on it. And you need to identify it as yours. So, that in the future, people will know who made the quilt.

ET: Perhaps, do the labels before you get through with the quilt. [laughs.]

JKG: That's true, that's a good idea.

ET: How do you think quilts can be used?

JKG: Oh, gosh. I know how they were used in the past and we talk nowadays about having wearable quilts, but we don't wear them like we used to. I mean, when quilts first started out, the Chinese, even the Europeans used quilted material under their skirts to keep warm. We don't have to do that nowadays, so now things can be more decorative. I mean, you know, it can be a small wall hanging, it can be curtains, and it can be clothing. Or it can be bed linen. But they can be used so many different ways.

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

JKG: I think the main thing is stay away from plastic! Don't store them in plastic bags. You know, just the commonsense things. And make sure you put that on a label, or the person has those instructions when you give it to them so that they know if they want to keep this forever, or hand it down, that this is how you need to store it.

ET: Maybe make them a pillowcase to go around --

JKG: That's right! Exactly! That's a good idea. Put the instructions sewn onto the pillowcase.

ET: What has happened to the quilts that you have made or those of friends and family?

JKG: My sons [Michael A. Gordon II and William A. Gordon.] , daughters-in-law, grandchildren [Dylan, Aidan, Logan, Hunter and Greer Ann.] have all gotten quilts. They started out, except for my oldest grandchild [Ayla S.] --I started out making baby quilts for them. She was pre-quilt time, [laughs.] but since then, I mean, they've all gotten at least one quilt. And I'm working on making more quilts, for the grandchildren, for instance, but I want it to be based on something that is personal to them. I just don't want to make them a quilt that's a little bit bigger, and say 'Ok, here you go.' I want it to reflect something about them.

ET: Their personality has developed--

JKG: That's right. Exactly. Or you know, an interest that is a little bit longer lasting than 5 minutes. But they've all gotten--even, I mean they've gotten other quilts, that are maybe just sewing squares together and putting a border on it, but it's made out of flannel and it's nice and cuddly. That's one thing, but in the future, I'd like to make them some that have to do with their interest in life, that revolves around their interests.

ET: Have you made one for yourself?

[piano lesson starts in the next room.]

JKG: I made one that was just going to be a quilt. But I have ended up using it more than the others. And it's just because of the colors and the pattern, I guess. It's kind of a muted quilt, but there is one on my bed right now that is a diamond quilt. It is very--the diamond quilt has black borders on it, but it has all these different fabrics in it. And some of them are fabrics that I found when my mother moved from her house to a retirement home. And they were scraps from the clothes she had made for me. And I remember the skirts, or I remember the dresses or whatever. And my sons had children, I put--I had been wanting to quilt for years, and I knew that one day I would, and I had saved material from the shirts I had made for them. And so, when their sons were born, some of that material went into their quilt, their baby quilts. It's kind of just gets handed down, one way or another.

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

JKG: I really think it's gonna be their time. I know when I was working full-time, it was hard for me to either go to meetings, finish a quilt, or to be able to participate in what the quilters were doing if they made trips. So just keeping up the interest. And it's a case, I think with people that--it's like anything else, if you enjoy doing it, you will find the time to do it. But it's been much more fun since I retired since I can do everything the quilters do and you feel more involved, and you feel more part of a group when you're able to do that than when you're working.

ET: Joann, is there anything else that you would like to add to this interview?

JKG: I don't think so.

ET: I would like to thank Joann Kensler Gordon for allowing me to interview her today as part of the Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories. Our interview concluded at 3:37 p.m. on February 25, 2010.


“Joann Gordon,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed April 13, 2024,