Judith Thomas




Judith Thomas




Judith Thomas


Nola Forbes

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Cherrywood Fabrics (Karla Overland)


Essex Junction, Vermont


Nola Forbes


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

Nola Forbes (NF): My name is Nola A. Forbes and today's date is August 13, 2010, at 10:00 AM. I am conducting an interview with Judith "Judy" Thomas at her shop, Yankee Pride Quilts in Essex Junction, Vermont for the Quilters' S.O.S.- Save Our Stories project. We are doing this through the American Heritage Committee of the Vermont State Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Judy is a quilter. Tell me about the quilt we photographed today.

Judith "Judy" Thomas (JT): The quilt that was photographed today was made in 1985 for the Great American Quilt Contest, which actually was a celebration, I believe, of the centennial of the Statue of Liberty. Each state provided certain quilts. It wasn't that some guild selected people to make a quilt. Anybody could make a quilt. It had to meet certain sizes. I believe it was maybe seventy or seventy-two inches square. It had to have some patriotic theme although most of the ones that were made were made using designs that were based on the Statue of Liberty. Mine was totally different in that I didn't see the function or see the reason to make a quilt that had pieces of the Statue of Liberty on it because afterward what would you do with it? So I decided to make something that I thought was patriotic and also reflected Vermont. Another quilt won from the state and I think because it had more of the Statue of Liberty theme to it. That was fine because I was happy with this quilt. I chose it because I think it's the one quilt that most people know that I've made, that I'm associated with. Even though I've made lots of really nice quilts, I thought that would be the best one. When I designed it I used Grandma Moses pictures as inspiration. I didn't copy anything from Grandma Moses. But I did look at her paintings and try to figure out what the essence of basically New England. Early, early New England and New York. I tried to capture that in the quilt and I think I did.

NF: Some of the close-up pictures. Would you talk about what those represented?

JT: I just wanted to show a typical New England or Vermont village. I tried to pick out things that would go. That people think of when they think of a New England village. You know, you think of a white church. You think of the graveyard next to the church. You think of a building that might be a store and farms and bridges. Of course, cows for Vermont. Black and white ones. I put mountains in there. The eagle is obviously the focal point of the quilt. I remember I had a really hard time with the head. Finally what was used was a panel that we had. It might have been a goose. I don't think it was an eagle. We cut the head off the panel and I appliquéd it on. Then the eye, I believe is a reverse appliqué. The eye was from something else, I think. That was obviously a long time ago and I've kind of forgotten.

NF: The feathers on it?

JT: The feathers were just layer upon layer upon layer. I drew out the whole thing, full-size, on a piece of paper. So you're working on the floor basically. I live in a large house but I don't have a lot of floor space. I think I moved everything out of my kitchen and just put this huge pattern on the floor and dumped fabric all around it to get the right fabric. If I were going to do it again, I think it would be a little bit different in that the fabrics chosen were obviously the fabrics that were available back then. Now there's much more sophisticated fabric for that kind of thing. You probably would get a much more sophisticated looking eagle and all the others. The one thing that I remember about making it is that the houses were hard. Not because they're so small, but when I first started out making them, I was making them kind of in realistic colors. When you're doing a landscape like that and you've got such little tiny pieces, those houses have to be much brighter and darker than what you might think of as a realistic color scheme. Otherwise they're never going to show up. They were just too dull at first. I don't know how many I made but there were quite a few that I had to throw out.

NF: They didn't all end up in the quilt?

JT: They didn't all end up in the quilt. There was a lot of trial and error.

NF: Around the border of that quilt, you've had some comments on your stars?

JT: I had some comments. It won, I think, a Judge's Choice ribbon at VQF. [Vermont Quilt Festival.] I remember one of the comments. The only comment was--I think it might have been from Carter Houck, but I don't know--she said, 'The stars say it all.' [laughs.]

NF: And they appear to be perfect.

JT: They're pretty perfect, yeah.

NF: Is there other special meaning this quilt has for you?

JT: No, not really, but there's a certain view when I'm driving from my house in to Essex that I see every day that reminds me of it. The quilt is not a verbatim view of this scene but there's something about the scene that looks like it. To me it looks like Vermont.

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

JT: Maybe that I'm a traditional person. [laughs.] I don't know if someone would think I'm patriotic. I don't really think so necessarily. I don't know. You know, I am a meticulous person in terms of my quilting. I really try to get the details down so it's just right.

NF: How long did it take you to make that quilt?

JT: A few months. It's written on the label. It was started maybe in the spring of 1985 and finished at the end of the summer. I worked on it pretty exclusively for a while.

NF: How do you use this quilt now?

JT: I display it once in a while in my store. For Fourth of July or Memorial Day. Other than that it just stays folded up. I refold it regularly. I don't use it. It's much too large to put in my house. It kind of overwhelms any room that it is put in. So it's not something that I display at home.

NF: What are your future plans for this quilt?

JT: I have none at this point. Maybe at one point it might go to the Vermont Historical Society. But I don't have any plans for it right now.

NF: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

JT: Are you asking what style of quiltmaking I like? I tend to make things that look old. I recently moved my sewing room from one part of the house to another part of the house and got rid of a lot of stuff. I still have an awful lot of stuff. There are lots of unfinished projects. As a quilt teacher when you teach a class you have to have a sample. The class will not sell if you don't have a sample. So you make the sample. Then when you teach the class you make another sample. You never really finish that sample because you've got to make a sample of the new class that you're teaching. So you end up with all these unfinished projects that hopefully you'll get to at some point in your life. But maybe not. One of the things I've found is I'm not a contemporary quiltmaker. I've done things like that but that is not my style. One of the things I did find in going through all these projects is that they were kind of dated because they were made from fabrics that were available at that time. All the repro quilts that I've made don't look dated at all. I like scrappy. I don't like just a single color. Let's say, the quilt that's there on the wall. The blue background is comprised of lots of squares of different blue fabric. It's not one solid fabric. I think that gives more depth to the quilt. Makes it more interesting to make, too. That's the style that I prefer to make.

NF: At what age did you start quiltmaking?

JT: Oh, golly. I was in my twenties, I think. I have no family history of quilts. Well, I do have some family history in quiltmaking in that my grandmother made quilts. My mother's mother made quilts. I don't know about my father's mother at all.

NF: What was her name?

JT: My mother's mother? Her name was Mary Scarborough.

NF: Where did she live?

JT: Most of the time while I was growing up she lived in East Middlebury. She lived also in Whiting and Salisbury. She lived kind of south of Middlebury, the Brandon area, for most of her life. [all Vermont towns.]

NF: Did she help teach you how to quilt at all?

JT: No. I only learned about quilts that she made after I had made quite a few quilts. My mother never quilted. She knitted once in a while but not really. My mother was an unusual woman in that she became a widow pretty young. She took over my father's business. His business was automobile parts, so she knew an awful lot about cars. [both laugh.] But she wasn't into needlework.

NF: From whom did you learn to quilt? Or were you self-taught?

JT: I was self-taught. I did a lot of clothing sewing. But you know you can only make so many clothes. So I decided to try quiltmaking. I think the first thing I made was--obviously many, many, many years ago--was a baby quilt for my husband's sister's daughter. It was made out of kettle-cloth, which is an old-time polyester and cotton fabric. With pinwheels. I remember it being really bright colors. That was a long time ago. There were no classes back then. In 1976, there was a quilt revival because of interest in the two-hundredth anniversary. [United States Bicentennial.] There were more articles in magazines. There was a revival. That really started what is continuing on today. I think maybe in this area I was the first person, or close to the first person, who actually taught quiltmaking. There was a lady whose name was Ginny Salter, who has died quite a while ago now, I think. She taught quiltmaking, too. I don't think there was anybody else, that I can think of.

NF: What is your very first quilt memory?

JT: I don't really know. There were quilts. Actually, you know, my aunt had this gorgeous house. She lived in Connecticut most of the time but she had a house on the Lake. An old, old house. She just had tons of antiques. She had this canopy bed with a matching cradle. There were matching quilts. They were blue and white. They were really beautiful. I think that's the first because we didn't have quilts at home. As I said, my grandparents didn't have quilts. I just never saw quilts. So that must be the first time. I'd go to the Shelburne Museum [in Shelburne, Vermont.]and look at the stuff there, so I was exposed to quilts that way, but not in my home.

NF: What prompted you to start your quilt store? Your business? When was that?

JT: It probably was in 1981. I had a business making children's clothes and also I did pillows and small quilts. Things like that. I belonged to Vermont Handcrafters and I went to different craft shows. At that same time, there was a quilt store in Middlebury that people use to go to. Rags and Riches actually had quilt fabric, too. That was kind of the start of more fabric available. I belonged to an informal group of people who got together and ordered fabric wholesale. The sales people would come into the area and it was mostly sales people who represented notions houses, that also sold fabric. It wasn't such that one person represented only one or two lines of fabric. You could buy stuff from these people and buy a variety of things. Buy notions and things like that. We would get together a couple of times a year when some of these guys came around and ordered things and we'd split them. From that, the group thought maybe it would be nice to have a quilt store in Burlington [Vermont.] because everybody was going to Middlebury.

NF: Which was a long drive.

JT: Yes, it is a long drive. Actually, I'm originally from Middlebury so it wasn't too bad for me. I would go see my relatives and make a dual-purpose trip. But it still was a long drive. So we got together and we thought about it. Everybody dropped out. The more I thought about it, the more I thought, 'Well, I don't think it's really a good idea to go into business with somebody else.' I'd heard all these stories about people not liking each other.

NF: After a while.

JT: After a while. It could be after a short while, too. I've heard some horror stories. So I decided to do it myself.

NF: Where was the location of your original shop?

JT: The Champlain Mill. [in Winooski, Vermont.] The Champlain Mill was just being renovated then into a shopping center. We were one of the first tenants. It was a good location for a long time because the building was really beautiful and it was a tourist attraction in itself. We sold a lot of ready-made things. Things changed over the years. One of them was there were very cheap imports now, which are not well-made. The fabric isn't very good but they're cheap. They are almost disposable, in a way. Having said that, we still sell quilts once in a while. But our location now is very different. We have a lot of customers who seek us out for fabric because they're quilters. We don't necessarily have a lot of customers seek us out for quilts. We really hardly sell any quilts anymore. We do lots of repairs. We do finishing for some people, but not ready-made quilts.

NF: You have quite a nice space for teaching classes?

JT: Yes. A great space for teaching classes which we use and we let the Champlain Valley Quilt Guild use. It's a pretty good location, too, in terms of not too far from the Interstate. It's at the junction of Routes 15, 2A and 117 so it's pretty easy to get to.

NF: A very high traffic area.

JT: Um hmm.

NF: Back to some of your time and activities. Are you able to spend a regular number of hours per week quilting?

JT: Yes, but I don't necessarily do that. I don't have to be in the shop every day. I don't even have to be in the shop any day. I find that how I work best is if I work at home. So I do the class schedule. We have a Mystery Quilt class twice a year. I design the quilts for those, write all the instructions, which takes a huge amount of time. Then you're making the samples to make sure that the instructions are correct. I buy all the fabric but I don't buy the notions and I don't buy the books. Two other people do that. I just take care of any problems. My husband does all the financial part so I don't have to do that. I used to do that but he started doing that and that's fine. So I do quilt a lot but I also do a lot of knitting. I'm really into certain kinds of knitting right now, lace knitting in particular. So I try to have a balanced life. I have a garden and I cook. My mother-in-law lives in the area and she isn't doing so great so I help take care of her.

NF: Would you estimate how many hours a week you're able to spend on your own quilting projects?

JT: Ten maybe. This summer I've hardly quilted at all because I don't like to quilt in the summer. It's just too hot. I don't feel the sewing machine works as well when the humidity is high. So I try not to do so much sewing in the summertime. This summer has been unusual because we've been doing renovations on our house. It's been hot and I just haven't done a whole lot. I've got to start in again.

NF: Are there other ways your quiltmaking has impacted your family? It sounds like your husband has joined forces.

JT: My kids know what makes a good or a bad quilt. But they're boys or young men. Actually they're middle-aged men now. [laughs.] When I have to make or do something, when I have a deadline, I'm pretty focused on it. Tom is very good about helping anyway. He does all that anyway so I can spend some time doing things.

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

JT: To be honest I haven't had any difficult times. I've had difficult times that haven't seemed so bad in retrospect. There is something meditative about doing any kind of handwork. There also is something meditative about just looking at the fabric and being around the fabric. During 9/11, I was out-of-state and Kay worked that day. She said it was really interesting that we hardly sold anything. But a lot of people just came in and touched the fabric. They just looked all around at everything and they just touched the fabric. They just needed to be in a place that was very comforting to them. Actually I've heard that from a few customers. Not about 9/11, but about, 'I'm having a really difficult day. I really need to calm down. Just be in a place where I feel good.' So I think that either the fabric itself or the act of creating something with the fabric is soothing. Another thing comes to mind because I'm a knitter, and I knit very complicated things, and a quilter. It was interesting. After 9/11, quilting kind of took a hit. What I think happened is that quilting is much more difficult mentally than knitting. The kind of knitting that most people do. Making scarves or making a hat. Nothing that uses a lot of thought process. You buy a pattern. You buy the yarn that it says to use in the pattern. You get the gauge and nothing can go wrong, you hope, unless you're a real beginner. Quilting takes a lot of thought and planning and math. It also, for the most part, takes a lot of precision for it to come out right. A lot of times when you look at a design, what makes it work is how sharp the points are. You know when all the blocks come together exactly right. How flat it is when it's done. Those are marks of somebody who knows what they're doing. It takes effort to get that. You just can't slap-dash it together and have it come out right.

NF: Can you think of an amusing experience that has occurred either through your quiltmaking or quilt teaching over the years?

JT: I can't think of anything in particular, although everybody has a good laugh about the size of their stash. [laughs.] How it's gotten out of control. I have to say, one of the things that happened. As I said, I moved my sewing room from one room to the other. Then I was going through all these closets. In one closet I found a queen-sized appliqué quilt that I had totally forgotten about. The top. I had made it. I had folded it up. It's in perfect condition. I totally forgot about it. I was totally flabbergasted when I saw that thing. At the last Mystery Quilt class at the beginning of the summer, I was telling people about it. They couldn't believe someone could make a queen-sized appliqué quilt and totally forgot about it. [both laugh.]

NF: It is a bit amusing. [both laugh.] What then do you find pleasing about quiltmaking?

JT: It's always a challenge to have it come out right and flat. I keep on saying flat, but flat is really important. That means all of the pieces are fitting together perfectly. I enjoy the colors. I think one of the things that is really instructive is that how the colors work to make the pattern look one way or the other. I think that's one of the reasons that a lot of people do quilting is that even though you think you know how it's going to come out, it doesn't necessarily come out that way. One of the things that really illustrates that is if you look at our website under the Gallery, which shows all the Mystery Quilts that we've done. The Mystery Quilts have either been the student picking out all the fabric, which it is going to be the next time, or what we've done in the past, starting out with a packet of something. Then they have to pick out their backgrounds and they pick out their accent fabrics. They the students have to pick out a whole bunch of different things. When we have the Mystery Reunion we take photographs of all these quilts. It's absolutely amazing how different they look even though it's all the same pattern.

NF: The mystery still morphs and you have to study it sometimes to see the connection.

JT: Yes. Sometimes, especially if it's a block-style quilt. What I tend to do is do blocks that alternate so that you get a connection between the two. A lot of times the block that is the design is the thing that shows up. Other times it's the connectors between the blocks that really show up. It's just really interesting.

NF: Would you talk about some of the art or quilt groups that you've belonged to?

JT: I don't really belong to any quilt groups. I've always felt that I need to be a neutral person because I own a store. I've heard about some experiences that people have had who have owned stores and then tried to be part of the group. It didn't really work very well. I'm very supportive of all the local groups. We donate money to the St. Albans, the Franklin County ones. [in Vermont.] Common Threads. We don't donate money to the Champlain Valley group but we let them use our space all the time.

NF: An in-kind contribution.

JT: Yes. We also donate the fabric for their raffle quilt for their quilt show and we donate fabric to their charity projects.

NF: Would you think back to the early days of the Green Mountain Quilters' Guild and maybe talk of some of your memories of that time?

JT: I used to go but I haven't gone in a long time. My place is really busy in the fall and it's just hard. What I remember most about going in the early days was Lucile Leister. She would comment on all the Show & Tell quilts. She just was fabulous at it. She had something positive to say about everybody's quilts. Some of them, I was just struggling to figure out anything positive to say about them. She made everybody feel good. That's what I remember most.

NF: I think I remember you providing some patterns for our newsletter. Perhaps Laurel Leaves comes to my mind.

JT: Perhaps.

NF: Maybe you passed them out at one of the Guild meetings as a free pattern.

JT: That could be. I just don't remember. I don't have a great memory for the past. I live in the present. When I was explaining about not remembering the appliqué quilt, I said, 'You know, when I make something I think about it all the time. I'm intensely thinking about it. When it's done, it's done and I don't think about it anymore.' A lot of times I don't have a great memory for the past. I'm really thinking about what the next thing is I'm going to make.

NF: Have advances in technology influenced your work?

JT: Yes. Of course, the Internet. A lot of patterns and fabric information and quilt pictures. It's totally changed a lot of things. In the knitting, even more. The fact that there are a lot of independent little yarn companies that do their own dying and things like that. They wouldn't have any market if it weren't for the Internet. It's just kind of fun to go on the Internet and look at sites. Barbara Brackman's site is really good if you're interested in antique fabrics and antique quilts. She will talk about a certain pattern and show all these different examples. Then give you some information about an exhibit where you might go to see some of these things. It's a good site if you're interested in reproduction fabric and quilts. There's lots of other sites. A lot of times quilters are inspired by color combinations. At least for me, the color combinations in the pattern. Then the other thing. The biggest thing is the rotary cutter. It totally changed how everybody makes quilts. You can cut much more accurately and cut tiny slivers off, that you could never do with scissors. I think it has made most people better quiltmakers.

NF: What are your favorite techniques for yourself?

JT: Most of the things I do now are machine piecing. I used to do a lot of appliqué. I haven't done a lot of appliqué lately because of being interested in knitting right now. I have a project that I haven't worked on in a long time but I do these small miniature recreations of Edward Curtis photographs. It involves quite a bit of research. You have to look up American Indian costumes because all of the photographs are in black and white. You've got to recreate them into something that is colored fabric. I haven't done one in quite a while. They're usually pretty small. Maybe twenty inches square or so. They have a figure dressed. Lots of beading. They're interesting. As I say, I don't have a whole lot of time for anything like that so I don't do very much of it.

NF: What are your favorite materials?

JT: I like repro fabrics. That's my thing. Our store specializes in repro fabrics. I've made my share of batik stuff, too, and other contemporary things. You look at a pattern and try to see what it would look like in a whole variety of fabric. As a storeowner, you're trying to sell fabric so you can't really be focused in on any one thing. There are certain patterns that look more contemporary for one reason or another and that really need a more contemporary fabric. Therefore, that's what you use. We do a lot of class samples here. We at least do samples of patterns where we try to showcase certain fabrics. You're trying to sell the fabric and a lot of times people can't visualize how a fabric could be used unless you make something with it.

NF: When you are creating your designs, do you use a design wall? What process do you employ to accomplish your design?

JT: I don't use a design wall. I have a computer program called Stitch Painter which is not a quilt program. It's a program for designing charted things. So it could be used for knitting, needlepoint, embroidery, whatever. All the designs are in little squares. They do have symbols, too. There can be triangles or things like that. I use that. I can make a block and then copy it wherever I want to and add borders. Then I usually reduce it in size quite a bit so I can get a better overall look. That's how I design all my quilts for the Mystery class and in a lot of cases, other things that I am making. A lot of times, too, for the quilts I am making.

NF: So that's another technology that has impacted your work.

JT: Right. It makes it much easier. You can really see the connection between the blocks and how they're going to work together. Better than making a few blocks and putting them on the wall, when you can't really see too much.

NF: I forgot to ask earlier, what aspects of quiltmaking do you not enjoy?

JT: I don't know. I don't finish a lot of my quilts. I have them machine quilted by somebody else. I do enjoy hand quilting some but I just don't do it very much. Probably the layering and the quilting of it is my least favorite. I don't mind doing the binding. Although I have to say because I own a quilt store, if there's a slow time I bring my quilts in and the people who work here will help hand sew the edge on. I haven't sewn hand edges on very much lately.

NF: I'd like to ask some questions about aesthetics and craftsmanship in general. What do you think makes a great quilt? When you're viewing quilts at quilt shows.

JT: Continuity of design between the middle and the edge. That's really important. That can mean colors, moving from the middle out to the edge. It can be design elements in the middle to the edge. The quilt has to hang straight. The binding has to look good. The technique has to be good. [Judy later added: Like any art object, balance is really important. No part of the quilt should overwhelm any other.]

NF: We're just about out of time. Is there anything that you would like to quickly add to this interview?

JT: Only that quiltmaking really changed my life. It gave me the opportunity to meet a lot of really nice people who are very talented. It gave me a way of expressing my artistic ideas that I have had. I've enjoyed doing this. I've enjoyed having a store. I enjoy my customers. They're nice people. It basically changed my life in a good way.

NF: I'd like to thank Judith "Judy" Thomas for allowing me to interview her today as part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project.

Our interview concluded at 10:45 AM on August 13, 2010.

[Judy later told that frequently when older, tourist couples come in to the shop, the wife will look at fabrics and the husband will reminisce about his mother or grandmother making quilts, an indication of how significant quilts and associated memories remain in American life.]


“Judith Thomas,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2296.