Juanita Kohfeldt




Juanita Kohfeldt




Juanita Kohfeldt


Eleanor Wilkinson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Battle Creek, Michigan


Nancy Wilkinson


Eleanor Wilkinson (EW): This is Eleanor Wilkinson. We are at Juanita Kohfeldt's home in Battle Creek [Michigan.] today. [July 1, 2010.] We're going to do an interview for the South Central Michigan Q.S.O.S. project which is a project of the Alliance for American Quilts. It is now 1:27 and I'm ready to ask you your first question. Let's talk a little bit about the quilt that you have brought today and you can tell me what you'd like to say about it.

Juanita Kohfeldt (JK): This quilt was made by my last kindergarten class. I taught elementary school for 34 years and when I started teaching kindergarten about halfway through that career, I decided that we did one letter of the alphabet each week. And I was really enjoying my quilting so when we got to the letter S we talked about sewing and we got to the letter Q we talked about--oh, sorry--when we got to the letter Q we talked about quilts. At S I brought in my sewing machine and the children had colored pictures that I transferred onto fabric and we sewed those pictures together into a quilt top and with the letter T if they could tie their shoes they got to tie their square in the quilt.

EW: Oh, that's clever.

JK: And we made one every year. They weren't always the same thing as far as coloring, but they usually were related to a quilt story that I read the children and then we gave it to someone that--one year my teaching assistant got quite ill and so she got the quilt. We had a foster grandmother one time. She got that quilt when she was with us. We did some for the ABC Project and one year it was really neat, nothing came up. There was no--anybody in particular to give it to so I just kept that quilt and the next year one of the boys that had worked on it while he was in first grade got cancer, so we were able to give him the quilt that his class had made.

EW: That was nice for him.

JK: And, I think, especially with little kids, they're always on the receiving end and it was really nice for them to be able to make something and give it to somebody else that needed it.

EW: That's good experience.

JK: Yeah. I tried to emphasize that with the children, you know. That they can make a difference in the world even though they are only five.

EW: Now when the children colored these, were these in crayons?

JK: Yeah, but it was a special fabric crayon and then you put it on, the picture on fabric and ironed it and the crayons melted onto the fabric and then I had to go back with a fine line marker and put in the details and put their names on it.

EW: Well, that was fun, wasn't it?

JK: Yeah, I've done a number of them this way and it's always great fun for the children to see. I just completed one like this that was done by a, done for a fundraiser for Inasmuch House, which is a local homeless shelter. And, so I had the children that were living there at the time color pictures. And then we made it into a quilt and it raised $500 for the shelter.

EW: That was exciting.

JK: Yeah, it was very exciting for me.

EW: I'm sure it was. And this one that you have now--let's see, you said the name of this one was--

JK: "Kindergarten Memories." [now named "Two Loves", love of teaching and love of quilting.]

EW: OK. And why is this one particularly special?

JK: This was my last class and so I decided the last quilt that we made I was going to keep. I also kept the very [plane flies over.] first one that we, that I made with the kindergarteners and I think that I took that to their high school graduation just to embarrass them. [both laugh.]

EW: How cute. You didn't get their signatures on it, when they were high schoolers? [plane continues.]

JK: No. I don't know how much [sound of door shutting.] this will help, but--

EW: What do you think that someone viewing this quilt might conclude about you?

JK: Well, I guess they would probably--looking at the designs on it and so forth--is that I'm sort of, I don't want to say childish, but I can be childlike. You can take the teacher out of the kindergarten, but you can't take the kindergarten out of the teacher. [both laugh.]

EW: OK and how do you use this quilt now?

JK: This one is really just--it's kept in a basket in my den as a memory. I don't use it to cover up with or anything.

EW: And your plans for this eventually?

JK: Oh, I guess I really haven't thought about what I might do with it. Maybe when I have to downsize drastically I'll give it to one of my grandchildren.

EW: I'm sure they'll enjoy that one. Tell me about your interest in quilt making. When did you begin quilt making?

JK: Well, I think I started sort of dreaming about it anyways in the late 60's and early 70's. I remember one of the very first quilts I made was all out of polyester and it was tied and we used it as a rug. We were--didn't have a lot of money, just out of college and so I sort of used that as a rug underneath the coffee table and then when I was pregnant for my second child my, I cut out squares and my daughter, who was almost three at the time, learned solid, dots, white and green because she handed me the squares and I sewed them together for her little brother that was going to be born.

EW: That was cute. So that was about, what, 45 years ago when you started quilt making?

JK: Yeah, I guess so. [both laugh.] I really started in earnest, though, probably more like 25 years ago when I moved to Battle Creek and I started taking classes and really got more into it. But I've always sewn.

EW: So you pretty much, in the beginning you at least made quilts the way you already knew how to do it.

JK: Yeah. I'd look at pictures and try to copy, you know, that looks like it's square, so I made a mess of squares and I really didn't have a strong idea of what it was like, but I had always done a lot of sewing, making my own clothes and things like that and so I think that that gave me the basic idea of how to put two pieces of fabric together.

EW: And then did you take lessons?

JK: I took classes--

EW: Classes?

JK: --from a number of quilt shops around Battle Creek and I also went to the NQA Convention a couple of times and took classes and then in the Cal-Co Guild we have the camp, so I went to camp and would take classes. Just sitting and watching somebody else do something is a class in itself--

EW: Yes it is.

JK: --because you can learn just by watching others. And not being afraid to ask questions.

EW: That always helps doesn't it?

JK: Yeah.

EW: How many hours a week do you quilt?

JK: You know, I think I quilt less now that I've retired because I'm busier. But, almost, I would have to say probably eight hours a week, at this point it's not as much as I used to. But, I'm experimenting with other things regarding fabric. Not just making the, I shouldn't say just making, not making the Log Cabin and those kind of patterns--

EW: Traditional blocks?

JK: Yeah. I've gotten into a group that is involved more in art quilts where we manipulate the fabric with dyes and just stretching, way out of the box, way out of my box and so it takes me a lot longer, I was doing something for that, with that group, and I told my husband, 'It was a lot easier when I just had to read the directions in a book and do it.' Didn't have to try to figure it out for myself.

EW: And so are you working mostly in that genre now?

JK: Yeah, I am. If I had to make a quilt in a hurry, I would go back to the more traditional cut it out with a rotary cutter, mass produce the squares, but the last time I did that I got really bored [chuckles.]

EW: Isn't it funny how--

JK: [laughing.] --that happens?

EW: What would you say your first quilt memory would be?

JK: [five second pause.] You mean that I made, or just a memory of a quilt?

EW: Any memory about a quilt. Did you ever notice one as a child? Or--

JK: My mother didn't quilt. But she did a lot of sewing and I grew up around fabric--so that--I guess the first quilt I can think of owning as I was teaching third grade and a student's mother made me a quilt. And once I started quilting I realized that I wasn't anywhere near as appreciative of that as I should have been when I found out how much work was involved in it. But my family doesn't have a long history of quilts or quilting.

EW: Were there any other quiltmakers in your family?

JK: I understand that one of my grandmothers did, but I never saw any of her quilts. And I have one that my great--that my grandmother brought over from Denmark that is pieced on both sides and I believe that it has feed sacks as the batting cause you can feel the ridges and--

EW: Oh.

JK: --so those sacks would be written in Danish because her father was a dairy farmer.

EW: Well, you would suspect it would be feed sacks then.

JK: Yeah.

EW: Well, in those days we used what we had, or they did. I'm sure you have friends that quilt since you're in the quilt guild.

JK: Oh, yeah.

EW: And how do you suppose quilt making impacts your family?

JK: Well, my daughter, when she was just in high school announced to me that the quilt making must have really helped me because now, I could sew straighter when I made her clothes. But I think that because I have involved my grandchildren in some of the quilt making, they've done some, we drew the pictures and so forth, I think they appreciate it. They come to grandma's, and they want to do crafts. And now my daughter still pretty much sews just because it's cheaper, not because, you know, she wants to make a pair, wants to make curtains. She doesn't make clothing, or quilts or anything, but I don't know, the area in the family room is called my throne, where my sewing machine sits, so--I can't see any direct, you know, everybody else wants to quilt. But I'm sure that the appreciation of fabric and design and so forth, that my kids see very, they'll notice quilts where--

EW: Certainly your grandchildren will have quilt memories.

JK: Yes, yes.

EW: What do you think is pleasing about quilt making?

JK: Well, for the more traditional patterns, I think it's, I try to have, sort of an organized mind, you know, and so it's really rewarding to me to cut those pieces out and put them back together in an organized, orderly fashion, so that it makes a nice quilt. And, then, the more creative side of me is enjoying learning how to use things other than just a cut piece of fabric, or a traditional pattern--in the art quilt area we're, you know, we do things so it's done so differently and takes a lot of thinking and figuring out and I am a problem solver in that respect and so, I'm not always successful, but I do try to figure things out and do it in a little different way. And so, it keeps my mind--I always say I go to the American Association of University Women for my intellect and to quilt guild for my creative side, but I think with the, going into this art quilt thing, the intellect and the creativity are both getting more involved.

EW: Have you ever used quilts to get through a difficult time?

JK: Yes. When things get really chaotic in my life, or they feel like the world's coming down on me, I'll try to make a, I might make a quilt that's relatively simple and even copy the colors out of the picture of the book because I don't want to think, I just want a no-thinking project. And if I don't sew for a while, I know it, and I--it feels really good to get back to the machine. It's a good therapy. Because, and I love the feel of fabric. You know, if I go to a gallery and see a painting, I don't want to touch the painting. I want to look at it, but I don't want to touch it, but I have to keep my hands in my pockets when I go to a quilt show so I don't touch.

EW: It is tempting, isn't it? Has there been an amusing experience that has occurred when you were quilting?

JK: Oh probably too many to count.

EW: Or teaching?

JK: I guess one thing that seems to happen with some regularity is, the Amish make a mistake on purpose in their quilts. It's called a humble square so that they don't, because if you're trying to be perfect you're trying to be God-like. And, generally I can make a humble square without even trying. I've even made whole humble quilts.

EW: That's cool. Are there any aspects about quilt making that you don't enjoy?

JK: I don't enjoy the actual quilting on anything of any size. I've gotten so where if I make a even a twin size quilt I'll probably send it out to be quilted as opposed to doing it myself.
And sometimes, the repetition, if I'm doing a block lots of times. And I've found that in almost every quilt that I make at some point I don't like it. Like I said, I don't know why I chose this pattern or this color, or, you know, there's something, I couldn't even necessarily pinpoint what it is but I just have to set it aside for a little while and then I go back to it and I'm OK, but you just, almost every quilt I can tell you that's there's you know, at some point I thought this was a big mistake to start.

EW: But, but it works out.

JK: Yes, and I'm one of those sort of compulsive finishers which probably helps in that respect because I force myself to go back to it and then I like it okay.

EW: You've said that you belong to the Cal-Co Quilt Guild which meets in Battle Creek. Are there any other groups that you belong to, the quilting groups?

JK: I belong to the Syncopated Threads which is a circle where most of the people are also guild members and that's the one that's involved in more in art quilts [cell phone chimes.]. That--

EW: How long does this last?

JK: Not long. Sorry. [pause for ten seconds while phone sounds.]

EW: Do you want to explain what that was?

JK: [laughs.] That was just my phone.

EW: OK. [loud sound.]

JK: Oops, oops, that's my chair. Oh, the Syncopated Threads group, I started in that when I retired. It started out as a quilt journal, a journal quilt group, and even at that point we had some, not some conflicting, but different interpretations of what that meant. I interpreted it as I would journal about my life in general and then make a quilt, a quilted piece that reflected something that had happened in that month. Whereas some of the other people thought that they should be make, trying a new idea and journaling about how it worked. And so we just did whatever way suited us best and I was just retiring and going through a lot of changes in my life because of that so it worked real well for me to journal about that and make a little quilted piece about my feelings and my emotions for that particular month. And, I don't do the journaling anymore, I don't think any of us do, but we get together once a month and challenge one another to try new things.

EW: Sounds like a good group to belong to.

JK: Yes. And I also, I'm a part of American Sewing Guild and there's a sub, it is a, this particular chapter is housed in Kalamazoo [Michigan.], but we have a neighborhood group here in Battle Creek and a funny thing happened just recently with that. I was at the neighborhood, I've only gone to the neighborhood groups, I've never been to the Kalamazoo group until last spring we went, I went because they had a luncheon and I set down at the luncheon and was talking with, I didn't know who I was talking with, just talking in the group at the table, and through the process of talking I realized that the woman sitting next to me was my seventh grade sewing teacher. And so I hadn't seen her since seventh grade [laughs.] and--

EW: She didn't recognize you either, I bet.

JK: No, no but when she said she had taught and when she told where she had taught, I said, 'Boy, I went to school there.' And she looked at my nametag, 'What was your maiden name? Oh, I remember you.' [laughs.]

EW: Are there advances in technology that have influenced your work?

JK: Yes, I have an embroidery machine. I have a sewing machine that's capable of doing embroidery and I did one 90x90 quilt that's all embroidered blocks and I used the embroidery for embellishment on other things and I also have a needle felting machine and that has given me some new things to try. I don't know how long rotary cutters have been around, but I sure am glad they're here and with the advent of arthritis some of the new scissors that have a different kind of grip on them are really good. I've not done a lot with the computer, other than the embroidery stuff. I know you can design quilts and everything on them, I just, I haven't done that.

EW: Do you have a favorite technique? Piecing? Appliqué? Embroidery?

JK: Oh. I guess piecing would probably be. Appliqué, I've done some of that by machine, I don't do anything by hand if I can avoid it and it's okay, but I think I like piecing, I like some of the geometrics and making those shapes come together the right way.

EW: Do you ever appliqué when you're doing any of your art quilts?

JK: I have done some appliqué, there were the two we did, where we interpreted a picture and I had trees on mine and so I appliquéd some of the trunks of the trees and so forth on it.

EW: And do you have any favorite materials? Do you prefer cottons, batiks, prints?

JK: Well, most of my traditional quilting's done with 100% cotton. But, I guess I don't really have a favorite. I used to like calico a lot, I'm sort of out of calico now, but I guess if I had to choose one, well, I couldn't choose one, two, it would be batiks and solids, or things that read solid.

EW: Tell me about your studio. [beep.]

JK: Well, it's actually two little parts. In the family room we have a long, sort of a long, narrow family room and across one end I have what's called my throne area where I have my big machine in a sewing table and a swivel chair and behind me attached to the wall is another table and I have my backup machine in case my big machine decides it doesn't want to sew, and my serger and my needle felting machine.

EW: Umhmm.

JK: So that's sort of my throne area and then I, there's a, when we moved into this house, the kids were young and there's a little room off from the family room that they used as a toy room. And as they grew up and there was only one left and that was my son and he turned it into his model train room and then when he moved out I told him it was time for the trains to move out too or at least move out of that room and I turned that into my play room where I have my cutting board and I have a long countertop where I can, you know, work on projects. Sometimes it's real organized; sometimes it's not organized at all.

EW: And that's where your stash is?

JK: Yep.

EW: Are there any other tools in that area that you use? Besides your cutting tools? You use a mat and a rotary cutter and that kind of thing?

JK: Well, I do a number of things other than quilting so I have a hot glue gun and all my magazines and patterns and so forth. A couple of file cabinets full of ideas and--

EW: I know you've said that you are busier now than when you were teaching. Do you have a problem balancing your time?

JK: Yes, I do. I guess a big, something that really changed my idea about how to balance my time is when my father passed away a few years ago and I decided cleaning house was not important [laughs.]. I'm fortunate enough that I can hire somebody to come in once in a while and do it. Part of my problem is that there are so many things that are so interesting to do that it's hard to make time for all of them.

EW: Do you have a design wall?

JK: No. I have a, like a three-foot square piece of flannel that I can stick up once in a while, but I don't have a wall devoted to that. That would be nice to have in my next home.

EW: Do you lay your things out on the floor to look at how they're going to go together, or is your flannel board big enough for most of your projects?

JK: Either the floor or I have my cutting board is actually three foot by five foot, so that's pretty good size to get an idea how things are going to go together, especially now that I'm not making so many full size quilts simply because there aren't any more beds left to put them on.

EW: Did you always machine quilt?

JK: Yes, I've always done machine. I've just, I don't have the time or the patience to do hand quilting or hand piecing and now with the arthritis I have an even better excuse.

EW: And what do you think about the longarm quilters?

JK: Well, my experience is that they're just like everything else, there are really great ones and there are so-so ones and there are ones that I wouldn't want to give a quilt to. And, you mean the people, or the machines?

EW: Both.

JK: Oh. Well, I guess it's like everything else, again with, the machine is only as good as the person that's running it. And I've had good experience with it.

EW: And when you take your large quilts out to a professional quilter, are you involved with the quilting design, or do you just let her do what she thinks is best for it?

JK: It's usually like a 50/50 thing, you know, if it was somebody that I didn't know real well as far as the quilting I would want to choose the design and choose the thread. But if it was somebody I had a lot of confidence in, they would know. I've seen their work and I know that they can do, they'll choose what works best with this particular design and I'll let them go. [beep.]

EW: What do you think makes a great quilt?

JK: Hmm. What makes a great quilt? [eight second pause.] Well, I think color has a lot to do with it. Maybe more even than the design. If you have a color that will, or if you have colors that complement each other, but when I used to teach quilting sometimes I taught it to a lot of the--we opened up the gym in my school and teachers would come in and we'd quilt and it was always a challenge to get people to choose colors that were different enough from each other that it looked like you pieced it. Why bother to go to all the trouble of cutting it apart and putting it back together again if it's still going to look like one piece? So, I think that the color is probably the biggest thing that I look for in a quilt. The design is, of course, important, and there's some traditional quilt designs that I wouldn't even bother to attempt because I'm not a precision person. But, yeah I think color, I'd have to say.

EW: When you were teaching, did your class all do the same quilt or did they all have their own ideas?

JK: It was generally, we all did the same quilt, but they, everybody brought in their own fabric. And, it was fun. We had, we'd use the gym as I said and everybody's bring food except me, I didn't get to, I said that was my payment, I didn't have to bring any food and we'd do a quilt top in a day type of thing because these were really beginners that just wanted to get, you know, just wanted to have a taste of what quilting was about.

EW: What do you think makes a quilt artistically powerful?

JK: [six second pause.] Well, again, I guess I'd have to fall back on color. I know that's what I look at probably more than the particular pattern, though certainly patterns are important. The uniqueness of it maybe. If all you see is red and blue quilts forever and ever and ever they don't have much power. So if you put different colors together--again, I go with color.

EW: Okay. Have you owned or worked in a quilt shop?

JK: I have worked at a couple different quilt shops just as an instructor. But not with any regularity.

EW: And what about your membership in the quilt guild? Have you participated in any of the committees or chaired a committee?

JK: I think I have held just about all the--I've been president twice. I was membership for a number of years. I did the newsletter for a number of years. I've done Program. And I've always, I've not been on the quilt show committee, or haven't been the head of it, but I have worked on the quilt show too. And currently I am circle director which is a real easy job. [both laugh.]

EW: Well, it's about time. What do you think makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection?

JK: Uniqueness and workmanship. I think. Because it's a, you know, even if a quilt is made out of scraps, if it's done well, you know, and scrap quilts are beautiful. I think, I really think, uniqueness and--

EW: What do you think makes a great quiltmaker?

JK: [six second pause.] Well, you have to be sort of adventuresome, to try new patterns, or maybe even develop your own patterns. And you have to be willing to share what you know with others, I think that's really an important part of life is to, to share your abilities [beep.]

EW: Is there any particular person whose work you are drawn to?

JK: No, not really. I like a wide variety.

EW: Okay. Are there artists that have influenced you?

JK: [eight second pause.] I guess I have to admit that I don't know a great deal about the more traditional art world. So, probably not. Maybe, the lines and angles of Frank Lloyd Wright. Or the stained glass look of the Tiffany, of Tiffany. That's probably the closest thing to that.

EW: Oh, that's cool. Why do you think quilt making is important to your life?

JK: It's therapy. And I have met some wonderful people through my quilt making that are, I can't say that I've become best friends with anyone but I've learned from everyone. And our little quilt community here in Battle Creek is fairly close knit. It gets a little cliquey once in a while, but I've always managed to avoid the clique part so--

EW: Do your quilts reflect your community? Or the region in which you live in any way?

JK: I don't think necessarily. I suppose that if I lived someplace where the, Battle Creek has a lot more traditional quilters than does Kalamazoo [Michigan.], so maybe it's a little more traditional, but not, I don't think, not significantly.

EW: Okay. What ways do you think quilts have a special meaning for women's history in America?

JK: Well, I think that throughout, even the pioneer days and the early settler days, women made quilts then more for, out of necessity, because they had to piece together what scraps they had to make a life and sometimes it feels like we have to piece together what scraps we have to make our own life. And the names of the quilts even though they can vary from region to region, indicate some of the things that happened to the women during their lives, and I think that it's an important part of our history to see those quilts and listen to their names and have the, know that some woman worked on this quilt in the back of a covered wagon heading West.

EW: How can quilts be used?

JK: Well, they're decorative, of course. You can hang them on the wall, you can put them on the bed. They offer comfort. Curling up under a quilt when you're not feeling well or when you're sad is a, is very, that one I made for Inasmuch House is used, it was used to raise funds, but I think it also, the children and actually some of the mothers that helped work on it, it can raise their self-esteem. To see that they were able to do something that looked like that and people will actually pay money for. It's, I don't know that there's a limit to the uses that you could use a quilt for. You know, and what they can do for people.

EW: Have you given quilts as gifts?

JK: Yes, I have. All my grandchildren have quilts and all my kids have quilts. I started one while, for my dad [beep.] because he loved trains. It was called Railroad Crossings. But before I got it done he remarried [movement in background.] and so I had to, I decided that his wife probably didn't want to sleep under one called [chime.] Railroad Crossings, so I divided it in two and made bunk-bed quilts for my son and made them another one.

EW: That was a solution.

JK: Yeah. And my daughter wanted a white-on-white quilt and that was just a whole lot of quilting that I, as I've said, I'm not real excited about that, so I made her another quilt that I couldn't, I don't recall the pattern right now, but I called it the "Wrong Mother" quilt because she had the wrong mother to get the white-on-white. But when she got married I did make a white-on-white, but I did it quilt as you go with the individual blocks so that she got her white-on-white.

EW: That's cool. Did you--

JK: Oh, I'm sorry. I've made a couple other quilts for family members or friends that were very ill so that they could use them just for just little lap quilt and they could have people sign it when they came to visit them.

EW: That's a nice idea.

JK: And that worked out real nice. Unfortunately, the first two people that I made them for passed away so when I made the third one I didn't tell them, didn't give the complete history to that man. He's okay.

EW: So it was a comfort for him.

JK: Yes.

EW: Have the children and grandchildren used their quilts? Or did any of them think they needed to save them?

JK: My daughter's white-on-white she's saving. But, she's, and everybody's used the other ones. One family doesn't have a big appreciation of the quilts, but the other two families appreciate them and are using them but caring for them.

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

JK: You mean like an individual quilt? How would you preserve that or just--

EW: Yes, I think so. Or do you think they should be preserved?

JK: I really think they should be used. Now, I have to admit, the full size embroidery quilt that I did I'm not using right now but that's because I have a dog that likes to bury things in the bedding. When the dog's gone then I'll use that one. I think they should be cared for and they should be honored, but they should be used.

EW: And what do you think is the biggest challenge facing quiltmakers today?

JK: I don't know. I think that quilts are beginning to be more widely accepted as an art form rather than a craft, but that's still a struggle and even within the quilt making community when you start looking at the controversy over machine quilted, or it doesn't really have three layers held together so it's really not a quilt, and, you know, there's a lot of that kind of thing that I hear people saying. So, I think, I mean, I don't quilt to be accepted as part of the art community. I quilt because I like to quilt.

EW: You like to do what you choose to do.

JK: Yes, but, I, I think that quilting might have a wider audience, and a better reception if it was more accepted by the art community in general as an art form and I think that's changing slowly, but it is changing.

EW: I think we've reached the end of our questions. Is there anything you would like to add?

JK: No, I don't think so. I think we've covered most of my ideas.

EW: Well, we thank you very much for this interview.

JK: Yeah, thank you.

EW: It is now five minutes after two and this concludes our interview.


“Juanita Kohfeldt,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2174.