Barbara Oliver Hartman




Barbara Oliver Hartman


Barbara Oliver Hartman shares her quilt, 'Autumn Leaves', which took more than 15 years to complete.




Barbara Oliver Hartman


Suzanna Hardabeck

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Susan Quinn


Houston, Texas


Suzanne Hardabeck (SH): Okay. Okay this is Suzanne Hardabeck and today's date is November the third, and it is 4:08 and I'm conducting an interview with Barbara Oliver Hartman for Quilters' S.O.S. Save Our Stories a project of the Alliance for American Quilts. Barbara and I are at the International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas. Barbara, will you tell me about the quilt you brought today?

Barbara Oliver Hartman (BOH): This quilt is one in a series of quilts that I've done, been doing for, since 1992. This particular quilt was quilted, was finished in 2008. It is a series that uses every single tiny little piece left from all of my other projects. It's truly a green quilt. I started doing them, sort of by accident, like I say in 1992, and the first one that I made in this series was accepted into quilt national in 1993.

SH: Do you have any specific plans for this, additional plans for this quilt?

BOH: This quilt is owned by Quilts, Inc.

SH: Okay. About how many hours a week do you end up quilting?

BOH: That's really a good question. I am in my studio probably ten to twelve hours a day. I used to actually be productive most of that time but now I'm slowing down, I get distracted by many things, and I still think that I probably work three to five hours a day as an average on actually making quilts.

SH: Do you have a favorite color or theme?

BOH: My main theme is I am a very earthy girl, and I like autumn colors, I wear autumn colors, I like to sew with them, I just really gravitate toward earth tone and muddy colors. Although, I have some projects that I do in others but for the most part, you're going to see a lot of greens, golds, browns, khaki, those yucky green colors that most people don't like to use [laughs.] all of the earth tones, yeah, that's me.

SH: I noticed you have a design wall, on this particular kind of quilt, are you using it or are you just improvising?

BOH: That is a great point because it's the only type of quilt that I make where I can't use a design wall. What I do is I'll make a very, very crude drawing sketch of where I want to put the ground, the sky, the trees, and sometimes that changes midstream, but because I'm working with these teeny weenie little pieces, I call them slivers and bits, and because I'm using these little teeny weenie pieces, I can only work on an area about six inches in diameter on my sewing machine at a time. What I have to do is sew until I get them sort of fastened down, and then when I get a few areas finished, I, then I put it up on the design wall to see where I am with it, but it's a really difficult to pre-design using this style that I'm using.

SH: Has technology affected the way you do this quilt?

BOH: It really hasn't affected how I do this quilt. I have many, I have many styles that I work in and one of them does use technology. I do some designing on the computer, especially with very intricate pieced quilts, when I do those, but with this particular style of quilts, it's pretty much I have to sort of be designing and sewing and taking care of all the technical aspects all at the same time while I'm working on the piece.

SH: Do you teach this method?

BOH: Yes. I just started, I actually had not, I'd been teaching a lot of other different kinds of things for many years, and a couple of years ago I did develop a class and a PowerPoint lecture where I showed the different steps of the process, and I just came back about a month ago from Fargo, North Dakota and I was teaching the class and some of the students came up with some really neat things, it was very, very fun. I have been teaching at some lately, but that's kind of new to my teaching, teaching list.

SH: Do you have any amusing experiences that you'd like to share with us, either from your sewing and creating or from your classes?

BOH: Oh okay, well I do have a funny story about this particular style, because what I'm doing is I'm using a free motion zigzag stitch and because these are teeny weenie little pieces, I have to get my fingers very close to the darning foot and I'm using a little metal, I'm using my Bernina and I'm using a little metal open toe darning foot that is not designed to do with a zigzag and I routinely sew my finger. Now, the first worst time that I did it, and I mean I've been sewing since I was five years old, I've never sewed my finger, I've been quilting for thirty years, and I've never sewed my finger, so and it actually might have been on this quilt, that I have my studio at home is set up, I have a room, and I have my sewing machine, it faces a television set, and right to my left is my computer, so I'm like in a cockpit when I'm sewing. I'm terrible, I'm a notorious multitasker and I shouldn't be doing it, so sometimes I'll be watching TV sewing and on the computer, all at the same time, sometimes talking on the phone too, and so one day I was just, I don't know what happened, and I sewed my finger. The first time I ever did and it went through the nail, and so my husband heard me, my studio's upstairs and so my husband heard me yell and he runs to the bottoms of the stairs, he says, "You okay?" and I walk out, broke the, sewed right through my nail, it broke the needle of course, I walked to the top of the stairs and I'm really getting faint, and he looks at me and he seen me sort of bobbing, he says, "You better sit down and not fall down these stairs," [laughs.] but it was really bad, but since that time, in the last few years, it is just fairly common that I'll catch just the, on my left hand index finger, I'll catch a little bit of the skin or the fat on that finger right beside my nail. I've never sewn through the nail again and I don't even flinch anymore, it just happens, it you know, it's like no big deal now, but yes that's, and my husband likes the tell that story, "Yeah you should have seen, if she wouldn't watch TV and sew at the same time, she wouldn't have that problem," because of course he's a guy and he only does one thing at a time [laughs.]

SH: What do you think makes a quilt artistically powerful as you work on your quilts?

BOH: You know, I never think about that, that way. I just do what I do and I'm just always delighted and surprised if something turns out nicely and I don't, I know when I see somebody else's quilt and artistically it's you know, it just has a powerful, it, either the color or the design or whatever combination you know, that you, that makes that happen but I don't, you know that just never, I just go into my studio and make stuff and whatever I feel like doing that day, I do, and if, and I'm just always kind of happy if it turns out.

SH: What artists have affected you and your work do you think?

BOH: Oh, I am very taken with, you know I love Picasso, I love impressionism, I love post impressionism, a very abstract, this is the most realistic type of thing that I do by far, just about everything else is very, far more abstract than this, so this is a, kind of my impressionistic series that I'm doing. The more, the more of those I do, I'm constantly refining the technique and it's just given more of the abstract impressionism look to them, and you know, I love Picasso, Monet, Ge'clee, and Kandinsky those are absolutely my favorite artists.

SH: Were you trained as an artist?

BOH: No I wasn't, but I came, my mother was a dressmaker and literally from the time I was five years old I sat at the sewing machine. My mother made squaw dresses back in the 50s and she had a business and she had ladies that sewed for her and she made them for stores and custom work for people, I lived in Arizona, was raised there. We had, I had the fabric guy came, the zipper guy came, the thread you know, the trim, all of the different things she used so I was around it all my life, hated anything to do with sewing because I had to do it, and anything my mother wanted me to do I didn't want to do, but I've always sewed. My grandmother in Texas made quilts, so we would go in the summers and visit her and she always had the quilt on the, she had to quilt that came down from the ceiling you know, at night then you'd roll it back up when they would go to bed, and she quilted out of necessity. My mother was very proud of the fact that she did not quilt, because she was prosperous enough to buy the blankets, coming as a child of the depression, so she didn't see much value in what my grandmother did, and my grandmother made all the clothes too, but she also made the quilts from the used clothing because it was a necessity, you know she had to do that. My mother, so it kind of skipped a generation there, and I was in the thirties before I just, I always had a sewing machine, I would sew for my daughters a little bit when they were young, but so I just sort of took it up as a little hobby [laughs.] about thirty years ago and it's just totally taken over our whole family's lives ever since.

SH: Is the rest of your family involved in your art business?

BOH: No they aren't. My kids are all artistic, and they're, they love what I do, my husband loves what I do, but they don't do it. One of my daughters is an artist, I mean, she has a real job but she really has a, an artistic bent. She is very, a creative thinker, and you know, but none of them are, but my brother-in-law is an artist, he has a PhD in art; my husband's brother was a potter for thirty-five years, he raised his family doing arts and crafts fairs making pots. So we've had a lot of artists in the family. It's like we have artists, and then everyone else that appreciates them. This quilt here got rejected from I.Q.A. this year, just for your information.

SH: [laughs.]

BOH: That was okay, this is the first one I did that got accepted into Quilt National in 1992, so this is, that's how much that technique has progressed. Of course people on this recording aren't going to know what we're looking at. We're going through some of my pictures on my computer.

SH: You mentioned being from Arizona, and I know it was Yuma [Arizona.], how does that affect your color use and your quilt style?

BOH: I think it's had a pretty profound influence. I tend to really like the desert, I like stark and simple things, simple shapes, I keep it kind of simple, I think the color palettes that I use a lot of the browns and golds and greens and that type of thing, I don't think of it. I think a lot of my shapes are also sometimes I recognize kind of the Native American influences and the Mexican influences because Yuma [Arizona.] is on the border and it also has three Indian reservations. That was always something that we saw a lot of. I have a picture here of Yuma [Arizona.], I don't know if I have it on here.

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

BOH: We have far more opportunities now. Twenty-five years ago when a group of us in Dallas [Texas.] tried to get our quilts shown outside of a quilt show, we would go to maybe our local art center, or you know small museum area or even galleries, and almost get laughed out of the place with out quilts. Now, I think we have a lot of opportunity. I think that the challenges are the same as in every endeavor in society today that everybody's looking for instant gratification. I think the challenges are probably our own making because we, you know, there's sometimes you don't want to pay your dues and do the work, and want instant gratification, but for the most part, oh this is what I was going to show you. This is the latest my little grandson, he turned nine, I told him he could sew for the first time, so about a month and a half ago I just cut a bunch of strips for him and he sewed that.

SH: Fantastic.

BOH: You were asking about the family, so that's what, so my family, so here I've got a little grandson that's very proud of his little project.

SH: Well it's very nice.

BOH: My little, my little ginger boy, so, anyway.

SH: We have a budding male artist in the family here?

BOH: Yes, and he is so proud of it, you know, and he just, because he and one other grandson who's grown now, he was about nine when he was very taken with it, and the thing with the boys that are very mechanical, because see it's equipment to them, you know they're wanting to work the machinery, and this can, and they were both like really into Legos and building the little things that had mechanical parts and all that. The other grandkids weren't into that so, but these two boys, the older grandson and this one, they just have been into it, but both of them have brothers who could care less about it, so, you know, it's just getting them at the right point, but oh he loved that. He loved making that quilt.

SH: Is there anything you want to share about that quilt that I didn't specifically ask you of, of autumn leaves?

BOH: No, not really. I made that, that was the only one in the series that I actually made for a specific reason and it was for the Husqvarna exhibit that year, when they used to have the Husqvarna, and they had to be made to a certain size, and that was the fifty-one by fifty-one and they traveled for a couple of years, and they could be for sale or not and I was just very fortunate that Carrie and Nancy wanted it for their collection and quilt seeing. It will be I guess in a permanent collection in the museum and so it was, so this is the first time I've seen it in a long, long time.

SH: Does it bring back special memories?

BOH: Yes, and it was fun to do, and I was, I mean I was very pleased with it and then when it was sold, I was just ecstatic by who bought it, you know, it was very gratifying.

SH: Is there any specific part of quiltmaking that you don't like?

BOH: You know, I love all of it sometimes, and I hate all of it sometimes [laughs.] there's really not much I don't like. For many years, probably the first twenty years that I was seriously quilting, my very favorite part of the handquilting. I would sit and handquilt, I could handquilt through anything. Twelve years ago my sister died, she had been sick for many years, you know two or three years really in bad shape, she had cancer, she had melanoma, and I would spend a lot of time with her in the day and I would come home and I would just, my therapy was sitting and handquilting. Well unfortunately, I overdid it, and so now I have carpel tunnel really bad, and so I try to have a quilt on my frame all the time, where if I were seriously quilting a quilt right now, I could maybe handquilt two hours a day, without it making my hands go to sleep at night, and you know be miserable. That was probably the most single, most gratifying part of the quilting process for a long, long time and then I finally had to accept that I couldn't do that anymore. I do different kinds of quilts on not this particular type of quilt with the little pieces, but most of the other quilts that I do, my pieced quilts, my other appliqué quilts, even though I am doing most of the work by machine, I will come back in and do some big stitches or some thread embellishment by hand and it just kind of makes me feel good to have a little bit of that hand work in the quilts.

SH: Do you do paper piecing or do just--

BOH: I do a lot of paper piecing, I do a lot of, I know its foundation piecing, I don't do it on paper anymore, I learned that lesson [laughs.] I got tired of pulling paper off, but many of my large quilts, my major pieces, have been paper pieced.

SH: Well then do you draw the--

BOH: Like okay, here, well this is--

SH: On foundation or yourself or--

BOH: Yes, okay. Here's an example. This was a quilt that I designed on the computer, this is foundation pieced.

SH: Okay.

BOH: Curved foundation pieced, so I do it on fabric rather than paper, so then I don't have to tare, so I've got that extra layer of stability in the quilt, makes them flatter, nicer, and you can do a lot of things with it.

SH: What do you use for your foundation?

BOH: Muslin, I just use muslin.

SH: Do you use a particular type of quilt program or do you just--

BOH: No, it's a drawing program. I use either Illustrator or CorelDRAW; see I have lots of different kinds.

SH: Yeah. Then do you after you draw it on the computer then do you pin it out?

BOH: Yeah, what I have to do is if I draw it on the computer, then I have to bring it up to full-size, so if it's, generally what I'll do is I'll take it, I have two ways of enlarging that patterns, one is I'll take it to Kinkos and blow it up as big as I can, that's what I did on most of my star quilts that are foundation pieced, and the other method that I've started doing some is, another method that I've started doing some is using my projector, my digital projector, because if I have the image on my computer, then I can just plug my digital, I can throw it onto my design wall and I can trace it. I have to one way or another, I have to come up with a full-size pattern and than that have to be traced off onto the pieces, so then I have to figure out how to put it together. Sometimes I design things where I could not figure out how to make them, so I would have to abandon those. This was a quilt, of course we can't see it, but it's a picture of a face, this is called Stages and it's the stages of grief, and this is the quilt that I would come home and sew on when my sister was dying. Let's see, it's got a heart, tears, a lightening bolt with some shock and so anyway, that's that.

SH: How close do you make your stitches when you hand stitch?

BOH: This particular, a lot of the quilts, and most of the ones that I do where I'm using big stitches, I will do like every other row will be very hot, fine, hand stitching and I'm a really good handquilter, and then I'll come back in with the embroidery floss and do the big stitches and I kind of intermingle them because I love the, I love texture on the surface of quilts, that's just, you know just an added thing that I like to do [inaudible.] but see here's like a little pieced quilt here but I'll come back in because it's all machine done, but it made me feel better to put some little hand stitches in there, so I will do that routinely.

SH: Very nice. [inaudible.] Okay. I'm running out here. Anything that I didn't ask you that you want to answer?

BOH: Well the main thing is, I just, oh I love to tell everybody that I love what I do. I've been so lucky that I have been afforded the chance to not have to make a living at it, or I would've starved to death [laughs.] and my husband totally supports what I do, he thinks he's supporting a non-profit organization [laughs.] Although I do sell some work [laughs.] [microphone fell off.] I do sell some. I need to plus that back in. I know this little, this needs to come out a little further, just not very, yeah, there we go. Anyway, and my husband loves what I do and he's afforded me the opportunity to do it and he loves my quilt friends. The best friends I have had as an adult and I joined the Dallas [Texas.] guild in 1983 and most of the friends I've made as an adult are quilt friends, quilt and art friends, and they all have come from quilting, being part of a guild, being part of a group, helping organize shows, and it's just added to the, I mean quilting has added so much to the quality of my life, my kids' lives, my family's life, I just feel lucky everyday. It's like a gift; I mean I really truly was given a gift.

SH: Do you mainly use cotton or do you use silk and linen or?

BOH: Okay, this is all cotton except I do have some silk thread here in this particular one. For the most part I'm using cotton, I'm pretty picky about my threads, my materials, and that's another thing that I learned the hard way over the years when you're self taught. I have learned the hard way, do not skimp on your materials, use high quality thread, fabric, equipment, because the only thing that you're doing is the only thing that is non renewable source is your time [laughs.] and when you waste, not using the best product and you know materials that you can afford, I've been lucky to be able to afford a lot, you know the nice things. I have friends that, you know, might not be able to have all of that, but I try to make everything in as high of quality in the products that I use when I'm putting in to something, batting, backing, everything, I try to.

SH: Do you use cotton batting or wool batting?

BOH: I use, I don't use wool, I use all cotton and I just always say, "There's no wool in my house," [laughs.] my husband might have a couple of wool suits. I just, I love cotton, I don't use any poly-cotton blends at all, I've have very bad luck with those, so I use, I just use all cotton products for the most part. If I, I'm not opposed to, many of my friends really love the wool bats, and I know they are very high quality, it's just, I have gotten into that, and I'm very happy with the cotton battings that I'm using. I will use a little bit of silk. I have, I love that hundred weight silk thread and I have used it on the surface to do some design work on some quilts. So I will use some silk thread, but mostly, and sometimes in the bobbins I'll use some bottom line that has polyester in it, you know, especially if I'm doing those landscapes where I'm filling five bobbins at a time, and I need a really fine thread so I don't have to change the bobbins so much [laughs.] but for the most part I'm using cotton.

SH: Do you use any certain kind of needles or just the eighty weight or the--

BOH: No, I on the needles I use a seventy, the 70s instead of the 80s and I always use sharp, I never use universal, I always use the sharp needle, whether I'm doing the seventy or the eighty size needle and I never, I rarely ever use the ninety. I use very fine threads, I like sixty weight, fifty weight thread and I like the hundred weight silk thread and I just, my machines and myself, I just like the way the finer threads kind of sink in to the kind of projects that I work on, and so I use a smaller needle. If I'm using a monofilament, a real fine monofilament, invisible thread on some projects, and the hundred weight silk, I will actually use a sixty needle in my machine, a sixty sharp, but those microfiber, sharp, 70s, that's pretty much my preferred needle. I buy them in bulk because I do sew my finger and break them from time to time.

SH: I was looking here for silk and I didn't find any, what brand do you use?

BOH: It's a Diane Gaudynski has that line of hundred weight, I think both, Yli and Superior have the hundred weight silk thread, I do believe. Diane Gaudynski has a line and she uses that a lot in her very fine machine quilting, which is the best on the planet, the best quilting on the planet, and she's the one that kind of clued me in on using the smaller needles too on the finer threads so they're, it's available, but you just have to look.

SH: Okay.

BOH: And it's expensive, but.

SH: We're running toward the end of the interview. Anything else that you want to cover that we haven't covered?

BOH: Not that I can think of, I've told you everything I know in thirty minutes.

SH: [laughs.] Okay well I'd like to thank Barbara for allowing me to interview her today for Quilters' S.O.S. Save Our Stories oral history project. Our interview is now concluded at 4:42.

BOH: Oh here this was a neat quilt. This was a computer design and it was on the cover of that tumbling block book that A.Q.S. did, and so what I did is I drew up a whole block, a whole page of tumbling blocks, and then I swirled them, and made a sphere out of it and then I figured out how to real easily, I did Lisa's quilt in like three weeks, and it's big. See each one of these is a row, so I just did sew flip, sew flip, sew flip, light, medium, dark all the way down and sewed them together, it was very cool; but that was a technology thing, so we're through with that now.


“Barbara Oliver Hartman,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 21, 2024,