Barbara Brackman




Barbara Brackman


Barbara Brackman is a quilt historian who specializes in designing reproduction prints for Moda. She maintains a internet presence through her blog, where she shares her knowledge of historic fabric and quilts. In this interview, she recounts to Meg Cox how she began as a quilter by discovering historical quilt patterns. She has been inspired by Civil War era quilts in part because of the local history of her hometown of Lawrence, Kansas.  Quiltmaking has played a significant social role in her life, and she has continued to be active in three different quilting groups, including one that has met for forty years. in addition to collecting quilts as she has room, she also collects digital images of quilts and vintage fabrics.




Barbara Brackman


Meg Cox

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Kay Schroeder


Moda Fabrics Headquarters, Dallas, Texas


Eleanor Wilkinson


**This transcript was created by QSOS volunteers and was reviewed and, in some cases, edited by the interviewee. It may not exactly match the audio recording. For citations and interview quotations, please refer to the audio-recorded interview.** Meg Cox (MC): This is Meg Cox and I am doing a Quilters' S.O.S. Save our Stories interview with Barbara Brackman. We are at the Moda Fabric's Headquarters in Dallas, Texas. The date is March 5, 2011 and the time is 9:32 a.m. [papers shuffle.] So, Barbara, tell me about what you brought to talk about in this interview.

Barbara Brackman (BB): I wanted to bring something that really has created some kind of a change in my life, and so I brought just a few Kansas City Star quilt patterns. They're old newsprint from the 1930's. Why I brought them is because I found them in a thrift store when I was probably twenty years old and I went 'Ooh, you could make a lot of different quilts if you had enough patterns.' There were probably fifty in this package and in a plastic bag. I probably paid a quarter and then I just absolutely became enthralled with them. I sorted them in all the ways you can sort things. It's like when you're a little kid and your mother says, 'Here, play with the thread.' And you sort it by color and you sort it by size. I sorted them alphabetically. I sorted them by stars. I sorted them by squares. Pretty soon I became a junkie. [MC laughs.] I had to have more patterns and so I was a thrift store and antique store haunter at that time and so I would find them occasionally, but then I realized I didn't actually have to have the pattern, I just had to have a picture of the pattern. They hadn't invented the photocopy machine so I started putting patterns on index cards and sorting them in the same way I sorted the newsprint. So it really changed my life completely. Had I not found this package of quilt patterns I might have gone on to sort completely different things. [laughter.] The problem is I am a compulsive sorter. [laughter.]

MC: That's amazing. Now, were you quilting at the time?

BB: Yes, but I was working full time. I taught Special Ed, well, no, I guess I was in college at that time. It was something I kept thinking, 'I'm going to have time to make these quilts in the future. I'm going to get to do that pretty soon.' So this was my file of things I would get to make in the future.

MC: So, what was your first quilt that you ever made?

BB: It was about that time, let me see, the first one, my mother had been ill and I was nineteen, I was in college and my grandmother came to stay with us to take care of my mother. Everyone in college had quilts, but I was from New York City and so were my mother and grandmother. We were in Kansas and we didn't have quilts in the family and my grandmother was completely confounded by this whole thing, because she was a different-cultural grandmother. So she was living with us and I said, 'We're going to make a quilt because you're a grandma and I'm a granddaughter.' [laughter.] She said, 'Okay, fine with me.' And so she pretended she knew what we were doing, but she didn't, so I got Carrie Hall's book from the library and we picked a very hard pattern called Rob Peter to pay Paul, that probably has forty pieces. She didn't know a thing. I didn't know anything about templates or making the triangles the same size and the best thing was when it came to quilting it. I read Carrie Hall's book. It said she used thread and you did a stab stitch. I used six-strand embroidery thread to quilt it and I didn't split it because my grandmother, honestly, knew nothing. And so she'd watch me and she'd kind of shake her head. She just went, 'Well, just let her do what she wants.' So the whole thing was a horrible grandmother story. [laughter.] My grandmother was a fine woman but not a seamstress. So that was the first one and then the second one, because I didn't have any advice, I did a Lone Star, [laughter.] and that was hysterical because I drafted my own pattern and I didn't realize there are sixty degree diamonds and there also the 45 degree diamonds. I made eight arms for the Lone Star and only six fit together because I'd used the wrong diamond. [laughter.] So, that was the second one and then my sister got that one and she--and, also, Carrie Hall said you use old clothes, in her book and I had a vast assortment of polyester doubleknits [laughter.] in my wardrobe, in my sister's wardrobe and in my grandmother's wardrobe, and so it was a little bit wonky and stretchy. [laughter.] And then people said, 'How did you get into the lecture business?' Someone asked me, one time, to talk about my journey in quilting and I told these stories which are semi-hysterical because they're pathetic. And so people laughed and I thought, 'Well, this is a career, too, telling the true story with a little over dramatization, about my career in quilting.' Well this went on for years and finally other people, who came from a home-ec background and a seamstress background, gave me advice. And then I fell in with, actually, really fabulous quiltmakers and they showed me how to use a rotary cutter and a ruler. Now, I did learn the template thing, but for many, many years I did all my piecing by hand, with a pencil line matching things up, sitting in airports putting little triangles together, and enjoyed that no end. I have not made all the quilts I want to make yet. I still have many patterns that are sort of in my file. I'm going to do that one next. But it all started out with these newspaper clippings that somebody cut out of the newspaper in the 1930's.

MC: We see you get a lot of pleasure out of it and still do and there's more you want to make. What do you find pleasing about it, you think?

BB: About making quilts, well it's the fabric. It's all pattern. I just love pattern, whether it's the quilt pattern, whether it's the pattern on the fabric. I've done research on cowboy boot patterns. For hobbies I've done vast indexes of folk art in the world. These are my entertainment. I think it's the pattern in the fabric and the pattern in the quilt and balancing them. The sewing is the minor part. I'm not a person who really enjoys sewing. I've never been too coordinated as you can see by the stories of the first quilts, and it's still sometimes a struggle to get things to lay flat and points to meet. It's the planning and the seeing how it turns out, which is always different than the plan.

MC: What takes you from one to the next? Is it the research first, like your studying a certain period and you think I want to make that quilt? Or, is it a technique or what is the thing, or is it the fabric, itself?

BB: A terrible thing happens to a person when their hobby becomes their job. But, it's still my hobby so I have two sets of quilts and people, when they see my own quilts, they go, 'That doesn't look like you.' Well, that doesn't look like what you think I am, but the real me, my under-graduate degree is in art education so I took a lot of studio art courses and so when I'm making something for myself I'm inspired by pattern around me. I'm inspired by graphics that are contemporary and then graphics that are antique. So, what I'm working on right now, I'm doing a lot of small things, postcards, and I'm doing a lot of visual interpretation of traditional religious iconography. I'm doing a lot of shrines for myself, Photoshopping. I do a lot of digital taking, holy cards, don't tell my grandmother, and making them specifically for quilters. So, St. Thomas is the patron saint of mathematics so I Photoshopped him with a triangle and a ruler and a rotary cutter. I just pray to him every morning that I won't make any mistakes. [laughter.] So, I try to translate those into fabric and make those into things that are maybe twelve inches square. Now, no one ever sees these because--

MC: Where are they?

BB: In my house. [both speak at once, inaudible.] I put them up and then I often give them to Alliance [The Alliance for American Quilts.] or to a charitable cause like AQS [American Quilting Society.] when they have an auction. And people go, 'Oh, that doesn't look like the Barbara Brackman I would think of.' Well, that's what I make for fun. We were talking the other day about binding. I don't bind them. I mean I just zig-zag the edges so that they're very free. So then, the person who has to work for a living and loves her job 'll sit all day interpreting an antique quilt in fabrics that we've designed for Moda that are reproductions and I do a lot of interpreting the past and those are very interesting to me, but it's like I'm living two lives. It's a work job and a fun job and I think that the fun job, the night-time, day-off job has to be very different, because I don't think I could be making conventional quilts to entertain myself much, when I make quilts during the day. [unidentified person speaks inaudibly.] Or at least I'm designing quilts.

MC: Do you sleep under a quilt that you--

BB: No, I don't. It's because I have a bad dog [laughter.] and I also live in a bad climate, so I sleep under a down coverlet with a very washable duvet cover so when she comes in the house muddy. I did for many years and I have quilts on the wall. I have quite a book collection, of new and old quilts, and storage is always a problem. Quilts kept on the wall mostly.

MC: When you toggle back and forth when you make quilts that you make for your own pleasure, so you've also worked on a lot of books and you've done a lot of project books, so do you do the quilting for those? Or do you send those out?
BB: Oh, very rarely.

MC: Do you just--

BB: I can't get everything done that I would want to. I used to have quite a crew of sewers. I had a pattern company called The Sunflower Pattern Co-operative and it was co-operative in that nearly everybody in my sewing group worked for it. They designed patterns and then they also did contract sewing. But we haven't been selling patterns. My partner moved to Kentucky. My partner, Karla moved to Kentucky and so Kansas and Kentucky are too far to really continue doing business. So we half-heartedly think we're still in business. Nothing's getting done. Through Moda, if I design a quilt, then Moda contracts out the piecing and then the quilting to their contractors here. And it's always such a wonderful thing to design something and then see it finished without having to put a stitch in it. [laughter.] I love that part of it. When I do a book, I haven't done a book in a couple of years, I usually try to put one or two of my own actual quilts in there, that I have finished down to the binding and the sleeve.

MC: So, you can do it all.

BB: Oh, I can, not well, but I can do it all.

MC: When it comes to the technology, you mentioned Photoshopping and rotary cutters, what about the other things that you have in your arsenal, the tools that you use, the technology that you use, how do you design, like Corel Draw or EQ, or any of that, and what about your machine? Do you [both speak at once, inaudible.]

BB: Well, I am still a collector. That would be on my grave, obsessive-compulsive, but put it to a good cause. The computer just crashed because I had too many pictures on it, so now I'm collecting pictures. For my entertainment, I will sit for an hour and go through the auctions, look at the quilts. I have certain things I am collecting. One thing is a quilt that actually has a date on it. I have a little routine every day, looking for dated quilts on the on-line auctions. Then I save three photos, the over all, the shot of the date, so I can prove to myself that's actually the date, and then a detail to show the fabrics. And I have hundreds and hundreds of those. I save everything as large as I can, which is the cause of the recent crash, but I also have enormous files of things that amuse me, images that amuse [hisssing sound.] me, religious images, holy cards, icons, things like that. What I do is I manipulate those things and I wanted learn how to get good at Photoshop for two or three reasons. One is I would have to sew less if I could really do a convincing mock-up of a quilt, and so that was one of my early intentions. But, also, I've been scanning photographs for The Alliance, the Kansas Quilt Projects Slides, and they are thirty years old, twenty-five to thirty years old, and they have really shifted color and they've really lost a lot of color. They all shift yellow, don't they, when they, so I have to re-color and then, because they get very thin, I have to work on the contrast and so I wanted to get good at that and I put a hundred up on The Alliance's web site, the Quilt Index, but I have 12,900 to go and I want to get better [hissing sound.] because they don't look good, so I've been on hiatus from scanning. I don't want to do the actual scanning but I probably always would have to be doing the colorizing. So, I wanted to get good at that and then the idea of Photoshopping Zsa Zsa Gabor's head onto a holy card [laughter.] cracked me up. I've a very juvenile sense of humor. I'd always wanted to paint that but I couldn't paint that well [laughter.] and so I continue to amuse myself no end by manipulating photos from different genres, so I did the Gabor sisters as a three-face. Only people over a certain age know who the heck they are. Now, someone said, 'You could have picked the Kardashian sisters.' but I said, 'I don't know who they are.' [laughter.] So I have these enormous files and I'm thinking that's about the major thing I do as far as technology, right now. I do a lot of Word, do a lot of Word Publisher, but it's mostly Photoshop, and now it's to the point where I take the picture off the Index and many times quilt pictures are a slant because you're standing to the side to get the whole thing in and I know now how to square it up and flatten it out and improve it. [snapping sound.] And I look at any photograph in a magazine and I think I can make that square. I [hissing sound.] I can fix that up. So the whole world is all illusional now, to me, [laughter.] so much better than it is in real life. [laughter.]

MC: That is true. In terms of the way you use quilting in your life, has quilting ever helped you get through a difficult time. Is there an emotional component?

BB: Of course everyone has difficult times in their lives, so, illnesses, well, see the one, start when my mother was dying and my grandmother was there and we had something to share, whether we were actually sharing anything or not. She was just watching. But through divorces, through very bad illness and through my own illnesses, you know, when sometimes you break your ankle and they say no weight on it for six weeks. Sewing certainly gets you through those times. I find I shift in what I'm sewing because my boyfriend was very sick last year and so I found paper piecing. I did paper-pieced pineapples. That's all I did, no thinking, just sew, sew, sew, sew, sew. I started out with four inches and I went to six inches and then I went to eight inches and got better, so I didn't ever get to the twelve inches, which was good. [laughter.] I found paper piecing, which is something I always would have thought of as rather dull, you know to have it all so predictable, was very therapeutic because it didn't take any real thinking, but it occupied your mind. Definitely I think it's therapeutic as many people have said.

MC: What do you think makes a great quilt? We could talk a day about that.

BB: Oh, what makes a great quilt. For me personally, it's fabric. I love the graphics and I'll look at an Amish quilt and I'll go, 'Wow, that contrast is great. That design, that composition is great.' But then I just move right on because they're solids, who cares?
[laughter.] We have a quilt behind us right now and I guess I'm a microscopic focuser here. I focused in on the blue and the brown fabric and thought wait a minute, what's that shift there and color and I thought was that accidental, so I could stand here all day and look at the quilt that's behind us because it's from 1840 and, in fact, that particular piece is a rainbow print, which is deliberately shaded from light to dark and from brown to blue. There I am going oh, man, I've never seen one just like that. I have a very good visual memory. I have a terrible auditory memory but an excellent visual memory. So I try to file those just like the pictures in Photoshop on my computer. I try and file that away in the blues and say now remember that. Remember how that blue absolutely turned to brown and that was not an accident. So for me a great quilt is the great fabric.

MC: What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection or something like that?

BB: An interesting thought. I've written some guidelines for the museums I volunteer at and I think regionalism for the particular museum. If it's a national museum of American history it's American. If it's the Lyon County Historical Society, it's Lyon County, Kansas. I think regionalism is very important. If someone's going to give you an English quilt that has no provenance at all that has to do with the county or the area I think the quality of the quilt, the condition, whether or not it's an unusual version of a common style, or else an uncommon style. That's the thing we always have to be very, in fact sometimes break people's hearts an say, 'It's a lovely yo-yo quilt, but we don't have any room for more than one in our collection and storage is a problem. So I think each museum should have a collecting focus, which they do, and that you'll take a quilt, maybe, that's in very bad condition if it has a connection to the community and a good story that will back it up. I know right now we're going through a difficult time because museums are in such bad shape for funding. When I scan every day when I'm scrolling around for quilts that are for sale, I see that they are being de-accessioned from some pretty impressive collections. It's really heartbreaking, very upsetting, but it's because I know what, if they asked me at the two museums in Kansas that I advise, what should we get rid of, we need money, we don't have storage, I would say, 'It's a pretty quilt, but it has nothing to do with Lyon County, Kansas or Lawrence, Kansas or we know nothing about it and if we sold it, it would bring a better price than one that's in worse condition that has local thing, so let's get rid of the pretty one.' Then it goes back into the community to a collector who pays a nice price and then in twenty-five years it'll go to another museum when she decides she wants to de-accession her collection. So it's a collecting focus that everyone should have, every museum should have, and then it has to be adjusted. But I know at Spencer Museum of Art [University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas.] where I advise, at the Kansas Museum of History were I advise, we have two different goals. One is history and one is art. So I'll say, 'This is a fabulous story but the quilt is not a work of art, it's a common type of quilt. I think it would be better off at the history museum.' And then the other way around, this is a fabulous quilt with no provenance. I think maybe that should go over to the other museum. So, what makes a great museum quilt depends on the museum.

MC: What about your personal collection? Do you have certain criteria?

BB: Sixty dollars, sixty dollar criterion. [laughter.] I am a sixty-dollar quilt buyer. I have spent, I would guess I've spent up to $500 if it had great fabric. It's mainly I don't have storage. I have a one bedroom house, tiny little Victorian house and so, occasionally I will buy them on impulse if they're under sixty dollars, and then sell them for fifty, buy high, sell low is my theory. [laughter.] What I'm looking for, because I'm in the business of fabric, I'm looking for fabric. I'm looking for a charm quilt, or I'm looking for a chintz quilt that has a large piece of chintz with a whole repeat so I can copy it.

MC: So it might be for inspiration for your own--

BB: Mostly for inspiration. That's the only way I can justify it. I buy a lot of fabric in isolation. I buy a lot of blocks and a lot of big repeats of chintz backs or something, [inaudible.] backs that I can then use to make fabric out of. The whole on-line auction thing has really gone down the tubes. People aren't putting stuff up any more because people aren't buying. There was a time, when I stuck to that sixty dollar rule and I could get 1830 quilts for thirty-nine dollars because sometimes they're in terrible shape. Sometimes they're downright ugly and sometimes the person is selling them, often doesn't know what they have, and they take a really terrible picture. So someone that just scrolls through and goes, 'Ooh that looks like it's from the 1950's.' Oddly I don't even want it and I'll be the only bidder. Those days are gone. Those days are gone. So I'm a very, I have to really keep it to what I can store in my house and so it's much better for me to spend my money on yardage. I'll spend a lot more on a piece of fabric than I'll spend on a quilt, which is the converse of most people.

MC: Some of the quilts you make, yourself, sound like they're pretty contemporary with the Photoshop and all that, do you collect that type of quilt as well, or not so much?

BB: No, oh Lord, that would be wonderful though. I have a few contemporary quilts that I've purchased in the charity auctions and things, and I'll pay more than sixty dollars, but they fit on the wall. They don't require folding up and good storage and tissue stuffing and things like that. Deciding that you're going to live small, which was sort of a political thing for me, and it's a functional thing, too. It means that you do not have storage and you cannot collect what you want, except for pictures. That's another reason why I'm so interested in pictures.

MC: Of the contemporary quiltmakers, are there some that really speak to you?

BB: Oh, yes. There're many contemporary quiltmakers [inaudible.] who knock me out. Laura Wasilowski, you know, the whole Chicago School of Fusing, with the idea of, just the freedom of that technique, the color that they use. Now, in my fabric business, I'm the reproduction person, so I'm stuck in natural dyes. Black cotton is not something I ever get to do because it's in the future from the Civil War, so lime green, vivid magenta, those are things that I don't ever get to do, so when I buy fabric that's what I buy. And when I look at quilts I'm saving them into an inspiration file. It'll be some of the real bright colors and the real interesting use of some of the bold graphic fabrics people are doing today.

MC: You mentioned the Civil War thing which you've written a lot about, is it that you're fascinated by that period historically or is it the fabric that speaks to you first and foremost?

BB: Through my life, now I have no history in my background, no history education, I've plenty of history in my background. When I started out I lived in this wonderful little town. One day I realized it was a very important place in the Civil War. I have to put this in--- Missourians came over and burned it in 1863. We're still mad. [laughter.] During the Civil War it was a very important location as to events leading up to the war and then during the war that burning of the [various unidentified noises.] town was just kind of a union rallying point. When I realized the history there I started getting interested in the Civil War because I wanted to know who owned my house. When I bought the house when I was twenty-five I could see the people who had owned it, those were names that I had heard of. So that's how I became interested in the Civil War. Since I have no real historical education, I thought I'm going to work backwards and so I have gradually been working backwards into the Civil War. I want to be able to go out onto the street and know what that street looked like in 1862 before they burned it. I feel pretty confident about that now, in that town and in Kansas I understand it very well. Then I started working backwards. So I was fascinated by the Civil War for many years and I read every woman's diary that I could find for those years and because I'm a compulsive collector I saved notebooks full of any quotes, I would write this down in longhand, any quotes they might refer to something interesting about their lives, their fight with their husband, their bad children, things we can relate to, their depressions, their illnesses, their experiences just in trying to live lives as women that were so constrained, but also about slavery, and about abolition, about political causes from the Civil War, and then any references to textiles and quilting. I got into this, really, thinking I bet these women talked about quilting. Well, they didn't that much but they do talk about fashion, especially in their letters and so I would write those things down. I have probably, well, three feet of notebooks that are full of these papers-full. That's one way I got interested in writing about the Civil War. I knew a lot more about the Civil War and how women lived through it than most formal historians do because they're not reading diaries and letters and they're not reading women's diaries and letters. That's how I got into the Civil War. Now I've been working backwards and I've got into the 1840's. So I spent years reading nothing but New England diaries and literature about the New England literati, the people that were so influential, the Hawthorn's and the Peabody's. Spent years reading them. Then I worked my way back into the 1820's which isn't got a lot of information. Then I jumped over to England and now I'm complete obsessed with the Regency period in England. [hissing sound.] I know every piece of gossip, and I tell you, you want to know gossip, you want to know some baaad lives, bad choices people made, the English Regency [laughter.] is the era. Now I'm stuck in about 1780 in England. I know a lot about, yeah it states although there certainly isn't the documentation, so I guess I have to work back until the colonial period but that looks kind of cold and bleak [laughter.] to me, and so all I can think of is Thanksgiving pictures of cold people eating. [laughter.] very, very small dishes of turkey. That's a prejudice that I want to get over so I'll have to go backwards. I live in a small town which has not a great town library, adequate, but it has a university library and they have great collections, so I'll just go through the number, the Dewey Decimal System or whatever. Some of the books I read are so obtuse they're still on the Dewey Decimal System and when I try to check them out they glare at me and go, you know, 'I have to put this in the system. Nobody's checked it out since 1948.' But we do have wonderful books so I have access to whole worlds and people say, 'You live in a little town, don't you get bored?' No, I live in Regency England right now [laughter.] and I'm never bored.

MC: That's wonderful. It sort of prompted me to think about technology and the question of technology and quilts. Because you deal with all these historical quilts, you make them, you study them and you create patterns, how do you feel about the whole thing about making quilts today and hand versus machine versus long-arming and first of all how do you feel about it. And second of all, is it appropriate to use these older materials in these older quilts. Should you be sort of be making them the way they were made at the time they were made? Do you have any thoughts on that?

BB: I'm a rebel. You can do whatever you want. I never give it a thought and I never have in my whole life. I started out making quilts. There were people who had, I took Home-ec for one semester, they just suggested I go into something else. [laughter.] My father didn't want me in Home-Ec. anyway. He was really supportive of me anyway, 'I think you should just take a business course. Forget that stuff.' So I just have always just have gone, 'Whatever.' It's functional, do what you want. I've documented, I worked for Quilters Newsletter [Quilter's Newsletter Magazine.] for many years and that was one of our big issues. 'Caryl Bryer Fallert won a prize with a machine-quilted quilt. You know, we have to write an editorial about it. What do you think?' Uh, well, let her do whatever she wants. So, there's just no opinion there. It just seems to me, I'm a visual person and I'm certainly not a nit-picker and people have asked me to judge contests at fairs. 'Oh, no, you don't want me judging, because I'll just go for the visuals. I will not check that binding and make sure that the batting extends to the edge.'

MC: Or count the stitches.

BB: Yes. I just don't care personally. People want to get into an argument about it and I'm not a very judgmental person, so I don't want anybody throwing stones at me, let me tell you that.

MC: This is kind of an over-arching question. Why is quiltmaking important to your life?

BB: Why is quiltmaking important to my life? That's a very good question. Social, I think if I didn't have my quilting groups I probably would have quit making quilts. I would be still making art but my life is very much built on my women friends. I have three quilting groups that I belong to, so Wednesday begins a grueling couple of days, Wednesday afternoon, Wednesday night, Thursday morning, three different groups. Now some of them only meet every other week, but what that grew out of, as I say earlier, we used to have a pattern business, these same people and so it was our meetings. It was our business meetings and we'd be sewing and we'd be working on projects together. Then as the business sort of faded away it just became social and we invited more people. As more people retired from their other businesses, we invited other people in. So I always have to have hand sewing for those things. I always have to have something I can be doing by hand and there's prep-work weekend for that grueling Wednesday-Thursday schedule. Then because they're so interested in quilting, many of them, we keep up on the tools and the equipment. We're constantly trying to find things that are going to make our lives easier, better, and of course, the fabric. I can always bring in something or other, something that I'm working on and that keeps everybody talking about fabric. I think it really is mostly social that keeps me in there. I know I would always be doing something artistic, but it's strange how the computer, using the computer graphics, has really replaced a lot of the creativity needs in my life. There's problems with that in that I don't get up and pretty soon, every day, I have to quit because I've stared at it for six hours and you've got to change your eye focus. Time to walk the dog. I think it's mostly social right now.

MC: So, these groups that you're in, do you sew when you're there. Is it mostly show-and-tell, is it mostly social--

BB: It's all of those things. Show-and-tell, it's eating, it's champagne. Champagne for breakfast. I have to be busy, keep busy, and many of them do. One friend never does any prep-work and always comes in and says, 'Does anyone have anything for me to do?' So I like to even keep her busy. She's a great binder. If you get it pre-sewn, she'll bind it. She's a circle gluer. [hissing sound.] If she would do her own prep-work she could have made twenty quilts in the past couple of years, but she just can't sit there without having something to do. That's the way I am, too, so I do a lot of hand appliqué right now. We're always looking for the never-ending appliqué because then you won't have to do much prep and it's a tragedy after three years when it's done. [hissing sound, laughter.]

MC: In what ways do your quilts reflect your community.

BB: Well, that's social life and you know my community and many of the same people I've been sewing with for, I hate to say it, almost forty years, meeting at night every other week. We started out, years ago, the first group, and we made several group quilts, the first that really sticks in my mind is our Sun Sets on Sunbonnet Sue quilt, which is in the Quilt Index, in which we killed her. We hated her. We hated her because we’re anti-sentimentalists. We are just not amused by big-eyed children, unless they're real children. We lived in an era of Walter Keane paintings and Sunbonnet Sue just fit right in there. Everybody was gaga over her at our guild meetings so my friend Laurie Metzinger said at one time she'd like to see that little girl dead. [laughter.] So I took her and I drew her and I pushed her over on her side and I put a big rock on her chest and Laurie laughed so hard, this was during a guild meeting that we almost got thrown out. [laughter.] So we just took some Sunbonnet Sue patterns and we turned them over and we turned them on their face, turned them on their head, dropped things on them. That quilt entertained us no end. We got many people to work on it. Then we did a second one and then we said, 'All right, people are starting to attach meaning to this. They're starting to say that we were feminists, which we were, but that we were making this because we [laughter.] were feminist and we wanted to show that Sunbonnet Sue in her traditional role. We weren't thinking that. We were trying to kill her, squash her, flatten her out. It was anti-sentiment. So my friend, Nadra, says, 'Well, maybe should do a quilt that nobody can find any meaning in it at all.' This was in 1975, maybe '80. So she said, 'Every day I drive by a store, in Olathe, Kansas, called the Julian Flaming Furniture. It's been driving me crazy. What do you think they have in there?' Apparently Julian Flaming was someone's name. So then the idea was to imagine what was inside the Julian Flaming Furniture store. That's meaningless. It's total Dada. [laughter.] So we started that thirty years ago and it lagged, but about six months ago I got the blocks out and I said, 'We're finishing this thing, because thirty years is too long.' So here's what I've been working on night and day for the past six months, is trying to get people who were seven years old when we started it the first time, to make a few blocks. They had some things they wanted to set on fire [hissing.] and then we got it to the quilter. It just came back from the quilter last Wednesday. It's beautiful and I wanted to bring it. I thought that could be a good talismanic object, but I knew that my friend, Georgeanne, who never has anything to do it, so I would present it in the proper Tom Sawyer pattern, and she'd say, 'I'll take it. I'll bind it. I'll bring it back.' So she's got it right now. So this is a thirty-year project, so that's the way my quilts reflect my community. The ones that I'm working on as my art is that it's Tom Sawyerism. I try to get everybody involved.

MC: Where will that quilt go.

BB: Well, I don't know. You're thinking which museum discipline. Now that MSU, Michigan State University does have our first Sunbonnet Sue quilt, now we thought this was so amusing thirty years ago. So now that I can look on the web, you type Flaming Furniture. [laughter.] Every twenty-year old who's got his apartment and a six-pack of beer has poured gasoline on his couch and set it on fire. I've taken a picture of him, sitting there, drinking a beer. That's exactly the same sense of humor. [laughter.] I don't know, it's adolescent and it's like putting Zsa Zsa Gabor, of course, on a holy card. It's adolescent humor. So where would it go. I don't know. It's not even back from the quilter. Once it's back we hope to show it in our guild show this April and then we will undoubtedly will drag it around for a while some people are still out there giving lectures and, of course, I'll put it on my blog. Probably, since they're all invigorated after finishing a thirty-year project, someone will get another idea next week. 'Well, you know, we could do that one we talked about years ago.' I do love community working and I love art group projects. They said, 'We got it out, you know, and I put it together with scraps of stuff we had left from other projects.' They said, 'Did it turn out the way you thought?' and I said, 'No, I really hoped I could make it pretty.' [laughter.] But it's a lot of furnitures, overstuffed furniture with little appliqué flames coming out of it. There's just nothing you can do. [laughter.] It's got an Eames chair and someone did the kitchen sink. There's some very nice things in it. I think it's just downright ugly. Actually it's a concept. [sharp rattle.] We'll see what people can make of this and say, 'Now these women are deeply worried about fire insurance.' [laughter.] It's totally meaningless.

MC: I can't wait to see it. What is the importance of quilts in American life?

BB: Zilch. [laughter.] You know, I'm from a social services background. I'm a liberal. There are a lot more problems in American life than quilts. I do think the quilts are a touchstone to our ancestors and I am a historian. I'm a family genealogist. I love the way they connect us to the past. It's a luxury to be able to have that kind of touch with the past, to be able to have the money as a nation to save them in museum collections, to have the luxury as women and men to make them, to indulge ones selves in buying that much fabric and putting that much work into something, a handmade object. That's the importance of it, is that it reflects a lot, but I don't know, I'm a myth buster. It's something I can't say, but I can do it. They will come and go, as my grandmother always said, 'We had some of those, but when we had some money we got rid of them.' That attitude's going to come back. We have no family quilts at all and she said, 'As soon as we got two nickels to rub together we went out of the handmade blanket business, Barbara.' So, I think they have importance as to what they mean and how they reflect our ability to appreciate them. When you read world news, you know, and people are leaving countries because, it always breaks my heart and I know if you are collectors you people have to leave Tripoli, you can take what's on your back and one armful. You don't have room for that quilt or anything else that's important to you. So, I always think 'Well, if I had to get out what would I'd take, I guess the dachshund, the fat dachshund that would fill up my arms and I would like to have the hard drive but it's going to have to go, so very little gets to go. So I do think that we are in a unique position and that we are now able to reflect back on all that and to not have the attitude my grandmother has that a handmade blanket is a reflection of poverty. We have the respect for them.

MC: So it sounds like you're saying you think that the ebb and flow of quilting, that it's going to run down again, we're going to go through those sallow periods again?

BB: It must be inevitable. I don't know. As when my aunt said, and I had an abundance of aunts and when I quit teaching, that reliable job with a pension they kept telling me about, and I said, 'Oh, I'm in the quilt business now, I just go around and lecture.' And they said, 'Oh, you better have a fall-back idea.' I've never needed the fall-back idea but I think we can't predict the future. There was a period about ten years ago everyone was going into knitting, [laughter.] but knitting, there's just so many handmade sweaters a small child can have. [laughter.] And so grandmas, quit mothers, they did it, so I just don't know. I think people will always be doing something creative but what that will be, I can't predict the future. I'm very pleased that it's been going on, I've been in this business for thirty years. That's a luxury, too. I've been able to support myself really well for thirty years. Ebb and flow, I'm a historian.

MC: It's not going to ebb in your life, though, for you.

BB: No, because I'm retired. I just got my first social security check.

MC: So that means more quilting, more--

BB: Well, more time to Photoshop I fear.

MC: Well, to wrap up, in terms of your journeys with quilts and your discovery with quilts, what would your dream be, for your next--

BB: Oh, well, my dream with quilts. I would like to have more storage space. That is my [laughter.] eternal, you know, if you live in a small house you look at those people who have those little aluminum barns in their backyard and you go, 'Man, I could fill one of those with something. I wouldn't put the quilts out there, but if I put, like the pantry out there, [laughter.] I could put shelves in the pantry. I could put quilts in there. So my dream would be to have more storage space. I have had a [laughter.] a studio down town which I rented with friends and that's where we kept things for years. We lost our lease. The parking was horrible, the stairs were terrible and so I remodeled my garage to do that, but the garage is full, totally full. That studio was totally full, so more room for a better collection. Recently Moda sent me to look at a beautiful swatch book from 1835 and I thought if I were the richest woman in the world I would buy swatch books and I would have a room to keep them in and a curator to take care of them and I would come in every day and she would, with white gloves, turn the pages for me. [laughter.] What do you think of that one? So that would be my ideal. The realities are, if I had them I'd drop them and the dog would [inaudible.]. I'm very bad. It's not a museum at my house so I really don't want to have those kind of valuable things. I do love the access to them. As far as making quilts, I have time to make quilts. I have time. I have two studios, one in the house, one bedroom, the only bedroom in the house. I'm sleeping in the living room, abandon the dining room because who has people over any more. So that's the living room or the giant TV room and so I have an inside studio and then an outside studio and the outside one tends to be more storage for the swatches that I do have and a lot of the quilts. I do have the time to make the quilts. People say you're going to retire. What are you going to do? I hope to paint and draw more. They're messy. One of the reasons I got into quilting, I think, when I was just out of art school, was you can pick up a quilt and sew. You can't pick up an oil painting. You have to have the outfit on to do the oil painting. You have to have the big area and so I don't think I'll ever oil paint again but I'd love to go back to more watercolor and tempera and things like that.

MC: Thank you so much for letting us do this and talk to you and absolutely fascinating and truly fun, so this concludes the interview with Barbara Brackman and the time is now 10:18 a.m. Thank you.



“Barbara Brackman,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024,