Roberta Horton




Roberta Horton


Marilyn Geary interviews Roberta Horton, a quilter and quilt teacher, about her quilts and her quilting career. Horton first talks about the quilt she brought to the interview, titled "Frau Horton." She discusses her experiences travelling to Germany and teaching quilting classes there, which inspired the creation of her quilt. She also talks about various fabrics from around the world and how she incorporates these fabrics into her quilts. She details her creative process in both choosing fabrics and turning these fabrics into quilts. Horton talks about her general attitudes towards quilting, including her favorite aspects of quilting, the proper preservation of quilts, the qualities of a great quilt and quilter, and the importance of quilting in women's history. She speaks on personal aspects of quilting, such as the future of her "Frau Horton" quilt, her hometown's influence on her quilt designs, and her relationship with her sister, who is also a quilter.




Fabric arts
Textile artists
Decorative arts
Crafts & decorating
Women's history
Arts & crafts
San Francisco (Calif.)


Roberta Horton


Marilyn Geary

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Pam Neil


Houston, Texas


Marilyn Geary


Marilyn Geary (MG): It's October 23, 1999, and I'm interviewing Roberta Horton for the Save Our Stories [Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories.] quilt project in Houston, Texas. Roberta, can you tell us why you brought this quilt, of all the quilts that you have, for this project?

RH: Well, one of the reasons I brought it is because it has German fabric in it. As a quiltmaking teacher, I've had the good fortune to travel to other countries and to take the message of American quilting to other places, but to also see what they're doing. So this particular quilt was made after I taught in Braunfels in Germany four separate times. The woman who put on the event shared with me her culture, took me to see folk costumes and folk museums, all textile related and art related types of things. So I don't know, I think, it was a full circle thing for me. You know, you give to others, and they give to you. That's one of the reasons why I chose to bring this particular quilt. Another reason why I chose to bring it is that the top and bottom borders have what we think of as traditional appliqué patterns, and we particularly think of it as a Pennsylvania Dutch quilt. Of course, what we're trying to say is Pennsylvania German. This area that I taught in Germany is where a lot of the people that settled in Pennsylvania came from. It's the Hessian area of Germany. It's actually their designs. These are the designs that I saw carved and painted on the old buildings at the Outdoor Museum, so this was something that Felicitas [Lampert, sponsor of RH's quilting classes in Germany.] had said and she's right. When you see them from 200 years ago, those designs, you realize that people moved over here, they just brought their design sense with them. So it's like going back to the beginning, because the beginning is many different places. It's not only one place.

Another reason that I brought it is that when you look at the appliqué, it's symmetrical, but it's not really symmetrical. The shaping is different at the two ends, or a different element is put in. Today, we're into perfectionism, and you have to realize that when you see the real stuff, the pure design source, it's not. I was copying what I saw there. It was thrilling to know that in 1700, they didn't have freezer paper, and that was my point. So often, [people.] assume they know what they're seeing when they look at quilts or a design source and they don't really use their eyes. I guess something else is going on in their head, and it filters out. It was thrilling to see the real thing as opposed to the perfect mirror image that was computer-generated. So that was another reason why I chose to bring this quilt. Another reason I think was because the people that are in the quilt, these are little Frau Hortons.

MG: What are Frau Hortons?

RH: These are Frau Hortons. [points to women figures on quilt.] And they're free-form pieced. They're not pieced with templates. I started as an appliquér and then learned to become a piecer. I always considered piecing to be very geometric and very perfectionist; that you had to draw it on graph paper. And these are cut without graph paper. They're just free-form cut, guessing the size, guessing the seam allowances, sewing them. So of course, each one is different. And from the beginning, I considered appliqué a free form of expression, but I didn't consider it for piecing. So for me, this is the first time that I invented right with the rotary cutter the shape that I was doing, and that was exciting. So even though it looked like a traditional quilt, there are aspects of it that relate to the whole time I've been a quiltmaker and the continuing learning experience that quilt making has been. It has traditional quilting in it, because that felt appropriate, and the fabrics are German, but they look like our early calico prints when we started in the Seventies because probably the design source for all those fabrics if you go back far enough is the same, you know, in Europe and India. I was in the same places that the designs came from, so that was also a surprise; that so many of the traditional fabrics look just like calico prints that [are.] things that we were used to seeing as quilters. So, anyway, for all those reasons, I guess is why I chose this particular quilt.

MG: When did you get the idea for doing this quilt?

RH: This one took me about four years. In fact, it might even have been longer. The first time I was there, I got the fabric. I was given the fabric and also went to a store where I bought it. It's always that case that you don't have total choice. That is, there was a limit on the fabrics. I wish it could have been a broader range, particularly in the colored, printed fabrics. So part of the limitation was learning to work with it and still making it look scrappy. So I knew I wanted to use it, but I didn't know what the designs would be. At some point, I figured out to make the little lady. I stayed in a hotel, and as I came in the first night, I had a hard time getting the door open. Evidently opening the door triggered the television to welcome you in German, and the only thing that I could understand was 'Frau Horton' and 'blah, blah, blah, blah' and then 'Frau Horton.' The phone was ringing, and there's this TV yelling at me, and I'm trying to answer the phone, and in the background I can only hear 'Frau Horton.' So I had the name of the quilt long before I had the rest. I had to use, at some point, the ribbons. These are worn on traditional folk costumes, so I've used them as the inner border. They were appliquéd on afterwards. They had to be because the woman who quilts for me uses a hoop, and it would have ruined the ribbons to put them through the hoop. It took like three visits before I had enough information, because I didn't know what to do with the borders, and then when I saw the Outdoor Museum and actually saw these floral patterns, the idea dawned on me that that could be the border on it. This is one that took a long time. There's others that are very quick. This one just went on for year after year, and eventually you hope something's going to come out. I believe in the funnel theory of learning. You absorb and you look. The top of your head is just kind of open. These things are going in and hopefully at some point at the bottom of the funnel there's one precious drip of information that somehow you have filtered through it or consolidated it and that's what you end up being able to use. I don't ever know when I'm in such a situation what the outcome will be, but somehow it will get translated into fabric.

MG: When you were piecing the Frau Horton, when did that idea come to you that piecing could be more free-form?

RH: Oh, I had made the choice that I was going to do them individually. I learned in doing them that I could also do curves as well as straight lines. You know, you get braver as you go on. One thing you do is, 'Oh, what if I can do this?' and 'Oh, what if I can do that?' I believe in learning in action. You don't have to be a master in something in order to try it. I always figure it out as I go along. My whole teaching career has been that way. As a teacher you also learn from your students. I don't think you ever know all there is to know. There's always one more question to be asked. Then you realize you have to either find out the answer or you knew it and you didn't know that because no one had ever asked you before. That's kind of amazing when you're asked questions, and your mouth opens and a response comes out. You kind of stand back and say, 'Oh, I didn't know I felt that way about that.' This was something that was predetermined that I was going to do. I didn't know exactly what they would look like, though, except that each would be different.

MG: How did you come to quilting?

RH: Quilting? I was a Home Economics teacher and taught in the inner city schools so when I stopped teaching, I strangely enough found that I missed it and needed to find something else that filled the creative void because every once in a while, someone would learn something. In teaching, when you see the light bulb go on in somebody's eyes, it's very addicting. That's why you teach, to realize that you're actually helping that person to have a thought or to do something differently. And I missed that when I stopped teaching, so I took stitchery, or I first took painting, but found I didn't like cleaning paint brushes, so that was the end of that. Six weeks was enough. And then I took stitchery with a friend, and I loved it because it was working with fabric and thread. I had started to sew when I was in fifth grade, and to do embroidery when I was in the fourth grade. I'm not much of a stitcher, but you know it wasn't wet. This was like 1968. At some point, the teacher showed us appliqué, and that's when the light bulb went off for me, because I could cover a larger space more quickly in appliqué. If I had to fill up that same space with embroidery, I'd work at it, work at it, and work at it. It wasn't quite as natural. But with fabric very quickly you could cut out a shape that could be a fair amount of a design and just stitch it down, so I liked that idea of it. Back then, there were very few quilt books. Every once in a while, there would be a picture of a quilt in a magazine, and I knew that whenever I saw one, I really loved it. My stitchery teacher had studied with Jean Ray Laury. She had her book on appliqué. I remember seeing a drawing in that appliqué book of a sketch of a quilt that Jean later made for her son, "Tom's Quilt." Just the drawing turned me on, because it was modular. It was a contemporary quilt. I hadn't seen anything like that before, and I remember loving just to look at that drawing. I think that somehow inside of me, I liked the idea of looking in units. That was appealing. Once I took a quilting class, when I finally found one to take, so much of the information I had learned in my Home Ec. training tied right in. What I discovered though, over the last thirty years, is that a lot of the information I learned I have had to abandon, because it was excess baggage as a quilter. There's a lot more leeway in quilting than there is in clothing construction. I always use antique quilts for reference so no matter what you do, if you cut a hole in a quilt, the last time that you cut a quilting thread, you patch it. There's always something you can do in quilting, and I didn't have that same feeling about clothing. So early on, somehow, I recognized that aspect. I loved the making do. I am very much a traditional quiltmaker. At least I think I'm grounded in the tradition, but I don't mind pushing forward. My favorite part of it, I think, is actually the fabric. Buying the fabric, I've always loved buying the fabric. And then finding out something to do with it. You don't really totally enjoy a piece of fabric until you cut it up and try to put it with something else. So it's that search for the piece that you have to have and then finding out a way to use it, to show it off beautifully. A lot of what we've ended up doing in this quilt revival is taking our fabrics and chopping them up, like putting them in the old fashioned vege-matic that we saw demonstrated at the county fair, and then resewing it somehow, where people are not really paying attention to the fabric. It could be any fabric. I think I base my career more on trying to take the fabric and have it really influence me or to show well in a quilt, through contrast, so that people really do appreciate the fabric, because that's what I've enjoyed. In looking at the antique ones, there's a piece of fabric by a piece of fabric by a piece of fabric. It's always been enjoyable to me.

MG: You were mentioning how you find the fabric and then you find a way to show off the best in the fabric. Is that generally the process that you use with your quilts?

RH: There're different ways. One of the recent quilts I made most of the fabric was bought right here at quilt festival. Just about a month later, the end of November-- December is my own personal time to work. I made a quilt in three days from the fabric because my criteria for the fabrics, once I started that little collection, was that each one showed me how to quilt on it. The hardest part in the quilt sometimes is figuring out how to fill in the background quilting and all of these were selected because they had a pattern somehow on them that I could then quilt on. And that quilt went together so quickly because of that. The part that took so long was not the construction of it, but the quilting and the embellishing. So sometimes I have something specific in mind. A lot of times I'm buying in general. My criteria for buying fabric is that I don't already own it, meaning it's somehow different, so that when I go to work on it, I have multiple choice. There are certain quilts, well, there's a whole backlog, inside of my head, of quilts that I want to make. Sometimes they're places that I've been that I want to somehow represent in a quilt. Sometimes it's just a category of fabric that I have collected. I have some Indonesian batiks that I've done nothing with. I don't know how to use them, which means making a quilt with them will be how I learn how to get them to show best. So there's all kinds of piles like that sitting around my house. I tend to like to group fabrics together if they're from another country; to work mainly with those fabrics so that somehow I can feel something about their culture and their design sense rather than just taking my African fabrics and my Dutch fabrics and my American fabrics and my Australian fabrics and throwing them into one quilt. It doesn't let me separate the feelings from the country. I really prefer to try to have it, if it's from another country, grouped together with the real fabrics. Then anything else I add, which might be some of my stripes or plaids, or it might be hand dyed textures, things that are not that important. What the finished quilt has the essence of is the country that it came from or the time period. In doing an American quilt, I might say that I want it to feel like it's 1840, and that would be part of the recipe for making that quilt, for it to look old.

MG: In this particular quilt that has all German materials, how does this quilt to you convey the essence of the culture of the country?

RH: Well, in this particular case, because of the Frau Hortons, based on the folk costumes, what's fascinated me about visiting other countries, European countries, is that they do have country outfits and more specifically village outfits. In the United States, we don't. The closest we have perhaps is a denim shirt and jeans, but there isn't really a country outfit to wear, other than something that's red, white and blue. Because these are little Frau Horton's and they are dressed up. They're not village specific, they're generic. But it's the clothes, and these would be the clothes that were worn by not the royalty, not the fancy women, but the everyday women. So they wore plaid and small prints. The women had aprons. They had some kind of head covering in most other countries, too, which fascinated me. And then I mentioned the appliqué shapes really being based on their shapes, in this case including the ribbons from the clothes. So this one feels very German to me. Whether it does to anyone else or not, to me it does. Where if I was making an aboriginal quilt, I've done a couple with Australian fabrics, and they don't have any ribbons on them. They don't have any embellishment on them, because that's not what I saw when I was there. It's what I see when I'm there.

Unidentified Person: You made your own souvenir?

RH: Right, it is my own souvenir. Right. And sometimes I have an idea of what it's going to be and other times I don't. For my first Dutch quilt I did. The blocks are windows, because what impressed me about the country were the great big windows on the houses, and they had lace curtains, some kind of fancy lace curtains and flowers or a plant in the window. So that the quilt is nothing but windows with lace and flower arrangements. It's actually my Baltimore Album Quilt. I have a life list of quilts to make. I do check them off as I go along, and that's as close as I'm going to get because of the bouquets, it's my Baltimore Album Quilt.

MG: How would you say quilting has affected your personal and family life?

RH: Personal and family life? Well, it's how I make my living, so there's a big effect there, and probably because I have to support myself doing it, it may have pushed me more than if I had been supported by somebody else. When you put food on the table, and you do it by teaching, you have to teach things that people are interested in. I originally taught in Adult Ed in California. And in, oh, I don't know if it was 19--let's see, I started teaching in '72, '73 in Adult Ed. then we had Proposition 13 that came through a couple of years after that, and it changed the funding. Classes were three dollars or six dollars, and they suddenly were thirty dollars. In order to get students to come back, you had to have new things. Before you had repeaters, but once the fee went up, and this was pre-quilt stores, once the fee went up, if it was a new class, the old people would come back, meaning the ones that you had before as well as new ones. So it made me keep exploring. But also I express myself as a teacher. When I'm enthusiastic about something, when I learn the knowledge, at least enough to get excited, I have to tell someone else about it, so there's a new class. I only teach classes that I like. I have realized, I guess I've been blessed, that I have never known how little I know about a subject before I teach it. Meaning that, you can't know all of it. You really do learn from your students. I taught sashiko, which is a Japanese stitching technique that's similar to quilting. When I started teaching that in the San Francisco Bay Area, always a third of the class was Japanese-American. Now they had information to give me. [laughs.] If I thought too much about it, I guess I would have intimidated myself not to teach that class, but I think that quilting is sharing. And quilters are very forgiving, and they are very sharing. So I don't feel that I have to be one hundred per cent expert, because you're always going to have someone... In Berkeley, where I live, there's always someone who knows more about it. They'll end up telling it to you, so I found that out in Adult Education. I didn't have to worry about it.

MG: In what way to you is quilting sharing?

RH: Sharing? Well, because quilters share patterns, they share fabric. They share their lives. I've noticed in quilting bees, because one of the classes we had was to learn how to quilt on a quilting frame. We didn't know how to do that. This was my intermediate class. I watched the bonding that went on as these women became friends in the quilting process. I had read early on that quilting bees were gossip sessions. I assume that was written by men, because as I listened to the dialogue, it was support and help, maybe exchange of recipes, maybe how to take care of a child, you know, a problem, or husband management. There was all kinds of information that was being traded, and I realized that when they stopped having quilting bees, when they went out of fashion, they had to reinvent them, and it's called group therapy. So it's sharing, it really is. In my guild, the mini-groups support each other. Someone's husband dies or there's some tragedy in that family, it's that group, their quilting friends are the ones who rush over and help them. So it's more than just being involved and sharing patterns and fabric. But usually quilters are so sharing. Some people I've met that are from, say, the stitchery world or the needlepoint world, have told me that they can't believe how giving the teachers [in quilting.] are. In those other practices, it's all in a Ziploc bag, and everyone does a kit, and they'll show you maybe something in the middle, and maybe half way out in the border, but a teacher never tells you all of her tricks. In quilting, we do. It's like giving a friend a recipe but leaving out the special ingredient that makes that gingerbread different than anybody else's. Well, usually, quilters just blab to you, and they'll tell you what that is. I've seen that from the very beginning. I think it's because we're happy with what we're doing, and quilting allows us to know more of who we are. We make choices all the time. So it just makes us bubble. I was telling someone the other day, who often is meeting people who are not quilters, and then they find out what she is and then they begin to interrogate her, and she says, 'Before I know it, I've dominated the conversation. I don't mean to, but I have so much to say, and they have nothing to say about their lives.' I think that's what art, art in any form, does for you. It makes you more interested.

MG: Can you describe a little bit more about what you were saying of how quilting forces you to make choices and find out who you are?

RH: Well, for example, I don't like repetition. I don't like repetition because I can't make the second one match the first one. Nor would I want to, because it would bore me. The way to get around that is I would chose a separate shape, so like on this quilt, having different elements in it and purposely doing some differences in the shape. That's why you don't do freezer paper appliqué. I thought appliqué was alive, and I thought it was supposed to change as you sewed it, as opposed to exactly duplicate it.

MG: In what way does quilting help quilters find themselves?

RH: Oh, okay. You're constantly making choices. I know I don't like repetition. We find out that we like certain colors, we find out we don't like certain colors, then we grow to like certain colors. You're constantly thinking, because--well, I'm sure there are people who make kits and there are ones who take patterns out of a book, but so many quilters at some point begin making all those choices themselves. I couldn't have someone tell me how to use these fabrics. I have to make my choice. So you're constantly thinking about it. In making choices, you come to better understand yourself.

MG: How do you think quilting has enabled you to change over the years and to find yourself?

RH: Change? Well, I think part of it goes back to this thing of earning my living at it. I remember when I taught in public schools, I would never have gotten up on a stage and talked. But [as.] the paid lecturer, you're giving workshops and you're giving a lecture, you get up there whether you want to or not. That's one way right there. I'm a very shy, quiet person. When I'm in a quilting class, though, I'm not. It's, I guess, a performance. You really get to show your enthusiasm for something, and the people who are in the class understand it, so it probably let's you reveal a side of yourself that you wouldn't necessarily reveal to other people, because they're equally enthusiastic. They're just as addicted as you are, so that it is fine to have a passion. And I think it's interesting when someone has a passion.

MG: What aspect of quilting do you like the most?

RH: Hmm, well, I like finding the fabric, and when I travel, that's the number one thing on the list. So I travel by myself, or often with my sister, Mary Mashuta who's also a quilter. We don't have to go see what everyone else wants to see. We get to go track the fabric or look at architecture or look at folk costumes. I'm always looking at things that somehow are going to influence me. So the design aspect I like a lot. I enjoy the sewing. Some aspects of it are grunt labor. I have someone who quilts for me now, only because I don't have enough time. And one of the parts of quilting, of course, I like the best is teaching it. I just love teaching. My mother was a teacher, and I didn't want to be a teacher because I grew up with school teacher talk all the time. And then when I actually tried teaching, I found I liked it. [laughs.] And as I mention, it's addictive. This thing of being able to see people make growth. As a teacher, I set out--I teach about eight different classes, and I have in my mind an idea of what I want my students to learn, and I try to get them there by the end of the class. I try to get them aimed that way, and I'm thrilled when it happens. Even when it doesn't happen you're hoping that six months later, they will do something--someone in my class here didn't want to put any black in her quilt. She bought all matching fabrics to put into her scrap quilt. I told her if she only worked with those fabrics she wasn't going to learn as much as the other people in the class. Well, no, she wanted to work with them, so I allowed her to work with them, and the second day in critiquing, I said, 'Even if you added just a little bit of black here, I think it would look so much better. It would give you more depth.' 'Oh, no, it wouldn't.' Well, I said, 'Let's see.' Some people volunteered some blacks that we could fold and put them in. Well, she didn't know about that. I was thinking, 'This is a hard sell.' I met her the next day on the floor here down on the mall, and she said, 'I've already bought four different blacks to try in my quilt.' So she had to think about it. And that's what I hope is somewhere in the back of their mind. I'm like a little worm in there, trying to get them to behave or see in a different way. So my quilting is very much tied up in my teaching. It's almost hard for me to separate the two. I do make my quilts for myself though. Sometimes you have to make something specifically for a class. In general, mine are made for myself, and then they could become a class or part of a class. This quilt is part of my folk art class that I teach, which is "Art by Us Folk,' which is taught here. I make my quilts for me, and if someone else likes them, I think that's wonderful. If they don't like them, that's okay too. I think that's the part about knowing yourself. You get "onery-er," the more you know yourself, as I call it. If they don't like it, it's tough luck. It's their problem. And it's true. We can't please everybody, I know that. So I make them for the joy. Can I get that birthed? That idea that's inside of me? What is it going to look like?

MG: What do you think makes a great quilt?

RH: A great quilt? Well, I think you have to be attracted to it when you see it from afar in most cases. That's one way that it pulls you over. I think it has to require you a long time to look at it, so I like quilts that have a lot of fabric in them. If it's just a two-fabric quilt, it would be very difficult for it to be a great quilt for me. I like the workmanship. I'm very interested in the workmanship, so if it had superb quilting on it and a superb piece of an appliqué, but it was only two colors, it would not be a great quilt to me. I want to take a long time to be lost within that quilt, and it has to be such that I can also not memorize everything that's in that quilt, so that when I see that quilt again, I am equally excited. Some of the ones that are in the "Great One Hundred Quilts" [100 Best American Quilts of the Twentieth Century exhibit.] I've seen over the years. Some of them many years ago, and it's a thrill to see them again. I was seeing things in them that I didn't remember. Even Judy Mathieson's "Mariner's Compass," which I've seen how many times and [in.] how many pictures, when you see it up close, you're forced to look at all the different fabrics that she used, which in a small photograph, you might think that the entire quilt was made with solids. I still was forced to read the entire surface of the quilt. That's what I'm interested in. A long conversation when you're trying to tell someone about a quilt, rather than this was the pattern and these were the colors and it was this big and it was machine or hand quilted, period. It's all those things. I guess we're back to the fabric. It's the fabric.

MG: What do you think makes a great quilter?

RH: A great quilter. Well, someone who has passion. That usually shows up in their work, if they're into it. If they've done it enough and it could be their first quilt, but what usually happens along the line is that people develop their specialties. There's something that triggers their interest, so then they go further and further studying that particular aspect. In this quilt revival, inventing, not just duplicating, what was done before, but actually going further than other people have been, pushing this kind of envelope of safety. The ones I think are the greatest ones are the ones who are most knowledgeable, who have really come to understand whatever their choice is, or their technique or their style. Maybe not every quilt that they do is a masterpiece, but when you see a body of their work, it's significant. You'll end up recognizing a lot of the pieces. You'll still feel good in seeing it. It's complex enough. It keeps your interest, but it doesn't always have to be complex, because I think about the Amish quilts. What I learned from them is simplicity. So there it's color. We were commenting about the Amish exhibit that's here. When you walk down it, you can almost feel the soul of the quilts. There's something, it's their religion that emanates out of their quilts. So I guess if you can get yourself somehow into your quilt might be one of the ingredients to make a great quilter. Somehow they're able to express that.

MG: What place do you think quilting has had in women's lives?

RH: Well, it's allowed them a way to express themselves, because women didn't always have choices. They were often told all they had to do, and one of the few places in their lives that they got to make choices was in quilting. You see a lot of maverick quilts or odd quilts, and you know that woman was making some kind of statement that maybe only her quilting buddies would understand. She didn't like her husband or something. There's a quilt I can think of that was two-sided. One was the husband's side of the bed and the other was her side. You could tell her emotions looking at that quilt. He probably never even noticed it. So I think from the beginning quilters have found it as a device of somehow expressing themselves. When I talk to quilters in other countries, sometimes through a translator, or like an Amish quilter, and I'll ask her a question, 'How did you come up with that design?' She'll say, 'Well, you know, when I lay in bed at night before I go to sleep I think about my quilts.' I realize I do too, but I didn't assume she did. And so if this Amish lady did, and this woman in Japan did, and I hear this over and over again, and I realize that the women one hundred years ago, two hundred years ago, probably also had the same kinds of thoughts. It's our opportunity to be creative even if they were living under very harsh circumstances; it was their opportunity to have some beauty in their lives, which I think is important.

MG: What do you think makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or an archive?

RH: Ah, well there's a controversial topic. [laughs.] What makes it appropriate? Well, you would want it to be--well, it depends on the museum. It depends totally on the museum. What I would like to have in museums is to have a representation of what's available. One of the things that we see in museums is sometimes only the best quilts or the ones that the rich ladies made. I think we need to also have a museum for the quilts the common person made because there were more of us. So I would, if I was doing my own collection, I would want it to be broad based. I would want to have humble quilts, a homespun quilt as well as a Baltimore Album, because they're all valid as a quilt. They all serve a function, and perhaps that really primitive, homespun type quilt got more practical use than the very elegant quilt that only represented a small percentage of people. My ideas of what should be in a museum is a variety of what is available or was produced, a span of what was produced, so that we have to include appliqué as well as piecing. If it was a new museum now, and you were showing quilts today, we would have to have embellishments, because that's certainly something that's happened but so was it at the end of the last century. Crazy quilts, think about it, is actually what people are doing now. Not making Crazy quilts, but embellishing what they have done with embroidering. They've mastered these skills, and they're just going a step further. So I think it should be a broad based collection and not just the finest.

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

RH: Well, one of the ways, of course, is in a museum. If they're to be perfectly preserved, no one will ever get to see them, because they're going to be in the dark, laying flat in a controlled environment. So there's the toss-up. I'm hoping that more museums will collect quilts. As quiltmakers, we have to help them, because so often they're not stored properly, which means they are not going to survive. I think that's one of the biggest issues. There's a lot of museums that probably have quilts in their collections, some quilts that are regional quilts, but the museums that own them know nothing about preserving them. Soon that's going to be the local quilter's job to try to help those small museums preserve them. They'll always be family quilts, and now we have a huge body of books that have pictures. That's one of the ways that quilts are going to be preserved, because we have more ways of documenting them than we used to.

MG: What do you see happening to this quilt? How do you see it being used?

RH: I guess I never thought about that. Right now it lives on my quilt bed in my house. That's how I store my quilts. I store them flat on the bed. I really don't know. Part of the problems that you have in quilt making that deal with the future, my answer is 'It's someone else's problem.' There's only so much that one person can deal with. Someone who is a specialist in that area has to take that on. I just make 'em. What happens to them, I guess, is someone else's problem.

MG: Where do you see your quilt making going?

RH: I don't know. I never know. I'm just constantly exploring, trying different things. I don't know if I necessarily have a new direction right now. I think it's still this love of trying to combine fabrics, so that's what I'll continue to do. Some of the things I do are historical based on the early quilts that we have. There's more and more interest in studying the earlier quilts. I really enjoyed going to Europe. They're tracking down their early quilts, which broadens my knowledge of what quilting is. Because sometimes as Americans we think we're the only ones that have done it, and that's not the truth. There are other quiltmakers out there, and many of the European countries have uncovered a tradition they didn't even know existed. It's just so exciting. Yes. To get all of that out. It is. But the common language is quilting. It doesn't make any difference what country I visit in, you're with quiltmakers, and there's no one to translate. You can point at a quilt or point at pictures and giggle and laugh, and know exactly what the other one's thinking about.

Interviewer2: I thought of quilts as American as apple pie.

RH: Yes, but they're also in other countries. There's a very strong American influence in quilting, and other countries, especially at the beginning level, make ethnic American quilts. But at some point, they also realize, well, gee, I could use my Japanese fabric in my Japanese quilt and my Japanese designs or I could use my Australian flowers that grow in my country with the colors that I see. Why do I have to use a flower I've never seen? So at some point, which I think is about ten years into it, people realize that they don't have to do Sunbonnet Sue, that they can do their own version of what they are seeing, so it becomes personal to them.

MG: You talked about travelling to different areas in the world. Is there any area that you have in mind where you haven't been yet, where you might want to collect fabrics and create some quilts from that area?

RH: Well, the hardest part is finding the fabrics, because they're not as [available.] You know, if you find a quilt store, it has American fabric in it. It's one of our best exports. So you have to be more devious to find the fabric. That's why I include seeing the folk costumes, because that lets me see what their fabrics look like. You go to the houses that have been restored. That lets you see the textiles, but in also looking at the designs that are on the wooden furniture and all so when I'm collecting, I may not end up with a piece of fabric, but I have the design sense for the country. Yes, there's still some places that I would like to go. I'd like to go to Sweden, because I think that they have a very strong design sense. I'd like to go back to Wales, because I saw such a small part of it, and get a chance to see more of the Welsh quilts, which look like Amish quilts. So there's a lot there that I still have to learn. What I would like to learn and have the opportunity to learn. As a visiting teacher, you're often shown these things. It's nice to be a special person visiting, because they will know where to take you. On your own, you might not know about this obscure museum or a private collection.

MG: In what way do you think your quilt s reflect the area where you live?

RH: Well, let's see. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and we are ethnically very mixed, which my quilts are. My own guild is all different ages, incomes and racial and ethnic backgrounds. San Francisco is very much a hodge podge, and so are my quilts, because I don't have just one style. I bounce around. But I do work in series. If you look over the long run, this is part of my scrap quilt series or part of my folk art series. So from that standpoint, my quilts and who I am is very much reflected by where I live. In my area, people are open to whatever's out there. There's not one right way to do anything. And I think that's very much influenced me. I came to California when I was five from New York and had my education in California. As I compare and contrast to other parts of the United States or other countries, what I see is, that I was brought up more with the notion of multiple choice. That is, there's more than one way to do things. And to go other places and this is the way it has always been and it's the only way it will ever be, so that I think has broadened me. I grew up in Southern California, and going to the San Francisco area was just mind exploding for me. There was a very strong Asian influence, which at that point when I was in Los Angeles was a very small Asian community. It's now very large down there, but not when I was growing up. Seeing all the Asian textiles and garments and artwork has influenced me a lot. Part of it with Japanese design is the simplicity. In many of my quilts, there is a simplicity. They're not necessarily fancy quilts, because I think simple is good enough. You don't have to be real complicated. That's someone else's job.

MG: You mentioned that your sister was a quilter?

RH: Yes.

MG: In what way have you worked together or shared your quilting experience?

RH: Well, now. That's an interesting question, because we've made one quilt together. It's in progress. It was made for a child when he was born and who just had his Bar Mitzvah. The working title of the quilt was "Argument." So does that answer the question? We have separate studios. We live together. We tried to quilt in the dining room as the original studio and share the dining room table. She layered over me so eventually I got my own studio, and then she got her own separate studio. We have our own fabric stashes, and if I need something that's different, it would be in her studio because she has different buying tastes. So we share the love of quilting, but no matter what we do, we do it differently. I work with plaids and stripes, and I'm not that concerned about grain line. She works with stripes only, and they're perfectly on grain. It doesn't make any difference what we do; we do it in a very different way.

MG: Who quilted first?

RH: We started at the same time. We went to an event the day after Thanksgiving in 1970. The room was filled with quilts, and Donna Renshaw was the consultant on the original Sunset quilting book, one of the first books of this revival. I mean it wasn't out yet. She was the speaker, and the room was filled with quilts. They were hanging on the walls and stacked on the tables. She walked around and talked about them. I didn't even know there were categories of quilts, but I became a quiltmaker opening the door and walking into that room. Totally fascinating. So Mary was there. She saw that. So we got started at the same time. I got serious more quickly because she was teaching at that point in the public schools or at a Catholic School, and I got into teaching quilting itself much more quickly than she did. It took her a longer time to say that she was a quilter. I remember we went to take a class on, I think it was furniture, historical furniture. On the form we had to put occupation. I had just begun to teach quilt making. I probably had taught two lessons. For occupation, I wrote "Quiltmaker," "Quiltmaking Teacher," and I had to nudge Mary to get her to look at what I had written down on the paper. You know, what a hoot that was. I was a quiltmaking teacher [laughs.] so we've both been at it a long time.

MG: Is there anything else you'd like to tell us about this quilt that came from your experiences in Germany?

RH: I don't know what else. I think I've kind of covered the bases there. I took this back to Germany when I was there a year ago in the fall to show them, to share with them. I was doing a folk art class, so I had them all do a Frau Horton, only it was a 'Frau whoever they were,' which was a lot of fun. I have that quilt, which I just need to finish sewing it together. It was fun for me, I think, to give back to them, because that was, I think, the fourth time that I had taught there. Many of the students were ones I had [before.]. Each time I was teaching different lessons. There's just a rapport that develops with quilters. It was such a joy for me to be able to share with them what I had learned, my interpretation of what I had learned. So I guess it's kind of like a gift back to them, and I included on it, on the name label, there's a ribbon. Felicitas Lampert who sponsored the event has a quilt store. This was a silk ribbon that she would have that she would wrap around her quarters. So I sewed it on the name label, because again this was just purely a personal statement for me, like you said, a memento or a postcard of having been there. You know, I don't do photo-realism. That's not what my thing is. Mine's just impressions and I never know what's going to come out.

MG: Well, thank you very much. This is 2:50 p.m., and we want to thank you for sharing your experiences and your impressions of your quilts.

Interview Keyword

German quilts
Quilting in Europe
Cultural quilts
Cultural textiles
International quilts
Creative processes
Quilt teachers
Home economics teachers
Artistic passion
Quilt revivals
Creative choices
Personal opinions
Quilts and women's history
Quilting guilds
Machine piecing
Hand quilting
Art quilts
Traditional quilts
Quilt preservation
American quilts


“Roberta Horton,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 19, 2024,