Joyce Starr Johnson




Joyce Starr Johnson


Joyce Starr Johnson talks about how her quilting is inspired by and affects her family. She discusses the value of an unfinished quilt, and for her, the use of a quilt is more important than preserving it.




Quilts--United States--Exhibitions.
Quilts in art


Joyce Starr Johnson


Jana Hawley

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

A Friend of the Quilt Alliance


Houston, Texas


Jana Hawley (JH): Today is November 1, 2001 Jana Hawley at the International Quilt Festival interviewing quilter Joyce Starr Johnson. Hi Joyce, how are you?

Joyce Starr Johnson (JSJ): Good Good.

JH: Tell me about the quilt that you brought today.

JSJ: This quilt was made by my paternal grandmother starting in the fall of 1940 and I know that because her eldest child (my aunt) remembers her making it while she was pregnant with my uncle who was born January 7, 1941. She finished it during the first few weeks post partum. As far as we know this is the only quilt that remains that she made. Most of the others were utilitarian and had been put on beds and were definitely worn out. This one, for whatever reason, was put away and it reemerged sometime in the seventies probably about ten years after her death and during my high school years it was on my bed, which is where I assume most of the wear has come from around the edges. I managed to keep it somehow. I don't know how I kept it from being ruined. I really wasn't that into quilting. I just thought it was kind of a cool retro thing in the seventies and then I guess when I got into quilting I had a new appreciation for it. And it now hangs in my bedroom.

JH: We are working off a tape recorder today so could you for the record tell me what the pattern is and describe it for me please?

JSJ: It is based on a hexagonal base, a typical grandmother's garden type of quilt shape. However this one is arranged in an around the world pattern and I don't know if I've ever seen another quilt with hexagons in 1930's prints and around the world kind of combination of things. All very color coordinated in terms of starting with a solid blocks and then every other row radiating up from the center is a solid color butted against the prints. The fabric on the back is a pink backing that is two pieces of fabric sewn down the middle and edged with a very typical blue bias lining.

JH: Do you know the origin of the fabrics?

JSJ: I have no idea, but they are very common fabrics of the time. I don't know where she got them. There are some repeats: there is a little blue fabric with yellow, green, and orange sailboats on it that she used a couple times, but we also found [inaudible.].

JH: I see she alternated rings with a solid and a print.

JSJ: solid and a print

JH: Tell me about your interest in quilting.

JSJ: [pause for 5 seconds.] Oh gosh. I guess it when I was in graduate school when another one of the graduates got pregnant and we all kind of pitched in to make a little quilt for her. I'm pretty sure they took out all of my stitches. It was a tied quilt but even with the bias strip around the edges they probably took out my stitches. Not that I couldn't do the stitches but I didn't know that quilts needed certain kinds of stitches in different places, but I learned. Since my friends started having children. I had a small child and a little time on my hands, bought a couple little books I guess at Walmart or something like that. Bought some fabrics and just played around with it. My very first full size quilt – I think I might have made a couple big baby quilts some where along the line. My first full size quilt was a twin for my son and a log cabin variation in primary colors which is good, it was primary colors. It had an interesting mix of colors: bright orange, bright yellow, bright green, bright blue prints. The centers of the blocks are tied. The outside is stitched with what we call, lovingly, toe-catchers. They are really big stitches and I thought, 'Why on earth would anybody do this?' It was the most idiotic thing I have ever done I don't know why anyone without an awful lot of time on their hands would do this. I think I let it rest for a year or so.

JH: Did you take lessons?

JSJ: I have never taken lessons. I've gone to a couple workshops but never an organized class of any kind. All self-taught. I like the history part of it. I like the fabrics and am really drawn to color. I like experimenting – I tend to use a lot of traditional patterns and play with different nontraditional color combinations or new kinds of fabrics, a lot of batik fabrics.

JH: So how many hours a week are you quilting today?

JSJ: Probably about five.

JH: That's pretty good. That's actually getting quite a bit done. Right?

JSJ: [laughing.] Well, I started a quilt in the fall on 1997, a whole cloth quilt and I was going to call it my Ph.D. quilt because I had every intention of finishing it in December 2000 when I finished my Ph.D. I started it in 1997 in the fall when I went back for my Ph.D.

JH: So what's your very first memory of a quilt?

JSJ: Probably this one when it reemerged in the seventies. It seems like we found it somewhere along the line and I pulled it out and asked my mom if I could have it on my bed and she said yes. My history before that is all [inaudible.] made products. Neither my mother nor my maternal grandmother quilted.

JH: Neither one?

JSJ: Neither one.

JH: So how about your daughter? You said you have a daughter?

JSJ: My daughter is really important. It's frightening. I take her places and she'll say, 'That would make a good quilt, Mom.' I mean it might be coming out as well over one fabric store and she says well I think I'd like a dress out of that with a [inaudible.] made out of that--she really she looks at things and she sees projects, she's never seen the completion of a project but she's starting to come together. She sews with my old sewing machine. She has her own knitting needles.

JH: How does it impact the rest of your family?

JSJ: My husband and my son, I'm sure that they both would prefer that the knitting needles weren't sitting around or the quilt frame wasn't in the living room or that I didn't spend so much time quilting [inaudible.] which is even worse than the quilt frame, or that I didn't require a whole room in the basement just for my sewing things, I'm sure that they all prefer that my time and energy were spent somewhere else. You know it's a package deal. They have their hobbies too. [laughing.] Mine--it just does create clutter. Quilting work in general is cluttered.

JH: For many quilters the process is therapy, has there been a time in your life where quilting served as a way of getting through a difficult time?

JSJ: There was a time when my husband had sleep problems. He would sleep just fine, but he was very noisy at night and he would stop breathing. I would lay there and jab him. I was not getting any sleep and I would go down to the basement and sew. Instead of lying in bed, I would just get up and go downstairs and quilt. [inaudible.]

JH: So how do you use quilting for pleasure? How do you do the process of quilting and what kind of enjoyment does it bring?

JSJ: It fills up pockets of time I guess. If I have twenty minutes, if I cook dinner I can quilt in twenty minutes. I can sit down and pick up what ever I'm working on and do it in a small pocket of time which is a good thing. Quilting is something that even if you put in ten inches of stitches its ten inches that wasn't there before you don't have to commit to an hour and a half. Some jobs, you know if you're staining a floor you have to stain the whole thing in one shot and you have to do it that night, and that's the reason I like it. There are times though when I know that I need to do a lot of cutting out or a lot of work on the machine downstairs and so when I have a large pocket of time I turn the television off, and I'm going to go and do this, and that's my time and so that's this is my enjoyment. [inaudible.]

JH: What do you think makes a great quilt?

JSJ: A lot of things. Material. There are some that I admire not just because they are just beautiful ones. You see them and you know how long it took someone and you just admire that amount of patience it took to finish that project and that's a good quilt. It may be aesthetically the ugliest thing you ever saw, but when you quilt you know the time that is needed and then you really appreciate the process. You think that's a great quilt because what it represents. There are some that I really truly love to look at that bring great joy. It's like looking at a Monet painting. Thank God Monet painted like that because we get to look at it, and some quilts are like that. You walk by and you're like, 'My life is better because I've seen something beautiful.'

JH: What makes them so artistically powerful?

JSJ: I like really innovative combinations of patterns and color. Whether it is a batik design, an African design, when you can see that someone has really stretched their mind frame and I like big quilts, I like little quilts too. I like different kinds of quilts, but I really like bed-sized quilts. Because that was the original purpose of a lot of quilts is that they were made to keep the body warm. In clothing also but, quilts were intended as warmth. Now I've made a lot of wall hangings because I want something on my walls that look quilted, but I really appreciate that extra effort it takes to make a big quilt.

JH: At what point does a quilt become a museum piece? What makes it museum quality?

JSJ: Every quilt.

JH: Every quilt. Do you want to explain that?

JSJ: Because every quilt says something even if it's like my grandmother's quilts that are all worn out and lost or in a landfill somewhere, those quilts were made for some reason. It represents that family not wanting to pay the heating bill in winter, and so they made extra quilts. Why wouldn't that be important for a museum to show? I don't think the purpose of museums is to only show fine art. It is also to show how people lived. It doesn't matter what that quilt looks like. I look at the quilt that has stains on it. It still represents something to people.

JH: How is that some quilters though have an innate ability about design and color? Do you think that if, talk to me about this process.

JSJ: There is an interesting level of complexity in quilting. My mother is actually an incredible sewer. She knits and makes you want to cry. She does cross-stitch, but she would never in a million years choose her own fabric and I look at her and think, 'You are probably the best needle worker I have ever met in my life. How could you not just want to practice?' I just love doing that. She always says, 'I don't have that color scheme.' I was like, 'Gee Mom look at these beautiful pieces.' 'Well people helped me pick out these colors.' She does not have that confidence to go out and just try it. I mean if it doesn't work well throw it away, but you know she doesn't have the confidence. She always finishes every single thing she starts, and I think people who experiment don't feel compelled to finish everything they start, that they are willing to take risks and fail. Sometimes I haul things out in my garbage can if they don't work out.

JH: Really?

JSJ: I mean there are a lot of things that just don't work, but you know I'm gonna try it.

JH: So you're a risk taker?

JSJ: Yeah, and I'm a little curious about myself as a process person. Of the things that I make I would much rather play around with it. If I get half way through something and I really like doing it, but I know that I'll never want to look at it when I'm done, I don't care whether I finish or not. I don't quilt because I want to look at the quilt. For me, I quilt because I like doing it. I'm just as happy looking at someone else's finished quilt. I don't have to look at my own finished quilts, which is another family relationship thing.

JH: [laughing.] Yeah.

JSJ: Like how many unfinished quilts does just one person need?

JH: And how does that affect family and relationships?

JSJ: [pause 7 seconds.] I guess they all just love me anyway, I don't know. I guess I've done it for this many years and they've grown used to it. It's just what I like to do.

JH: Do you have a conviction of hand versus machine quilting?

JSJ: Not really. When I look at quilts at quilt shows there is room for both. Certainly in some exhibits there are some kinds of techniques that cannot be done by hand. They are beautiful to look at and wonderful to appreciate and also being a sewer myself I know that it's not necessarily a savings of time to do some of those techniques by machine. Some of them have special threads that you wouldn't want to do it by hand. I think that there is a real artistry in doing it and doing it well, whereas for myself I get more pleasure doing it by hand. I find it very more of a lifestyle issue for me doing my quilting. I do most of my machines work, my piecing rather, on machine. And as much as I like hand quilting, I'm not really an appliqué person. I don't really find appliqué hand work pleasurable. I don't know why. I love looking at appliqué quilts and especially if they are made by hand. I don't know why.

JH: Do you feel like your quilts that you make reflect the community or the region of the country that you come from?

JSJ: Not really. They probably represent my interests, because most of the quilts I would actually attempt to make are historic, they use old patterns with contemporary fabric. The wall hangings in my office at work are very contemporary. Physically the fabrics are--it's a different environment than my home.

JH: So when we think about quilts and American life, what role have quilts played in the American scene?

JSJ: I think in recent years it was very liberating for woman for the past 20 years, like women always have in the present and in the past. It allows them a little form of expression in artistry, and sharing that with other women. I think that also represents quilts from the past from many women, farm woman, who really had to spend a lot of time on the farm helping out their families, raising chickens, or [laughing.] whatever they had to do. Maybe quilting with their friends was one the few times besides church on Sunday women got to see other people, where they got a respite from that hard labor. I don't know really a whole lot about quilting [inaudible.], about how women quilted, how women in the country got together to quilt and things like that. Quilting has not always regarded by the larger community as work of idle hands. You know they were very, very beautiful, and it was expected of women. Like my grandmother, she really preferred to tat which is why I brought this tatting shuttle--

JH: [interrupts.] Tell me about that.

JSH: My aunt sent it to me, actually for my graduation present a year ago, it was used to make a collar that my grandmother had tatted and my aunt told me that grandma tatted lots and lots and lots. And for awhile she was blind. She had started college and was very stressed. She's kind of a [throat clear] intense individual and then went blind from stress and had to drop out of teachers' college. While she was blind she must have learned to tat. She was blind for about 18 months and then--I don't know, I like to think the tatting helped relieve that stress and she regained her eyesight, and then married my grandfather, and went on to other kinds of tatting. But I didn't know she was a tatter. I always knew her as a school teacher. She worked all the time except when she was pregnant. Many school districts wouldn't hire her because she was married, and married woman in the thirties and forties didn't work. So she had to go the very poorer school districts that couldn't hire anyone else and hired my grandmother even though she was married with children. When she was visibly pregnant she wasn't allowed in the classroom, so that's why she made the pink quilt. She was a working woman, a working mother long before many of us were. But I didn't know she was a tatter until five years and I was thrilled when my aunt sent it to me, sent me a letter documenting some of the things that she had that she had kept and then on a Christmas card she wrote the information about the quilt and when it was quilted.

JH: That's invaluable isn't it?

JSJ: Yeah. I really did not know that grandmother a lot. She died when I was five or six. What I remember of her, she was very driven. She was, uh, we would go into her house and it was down to business here. Here's the paint, here's the table, sit down and draw. Even kids had to tow the line; even five-year-olds had to tow the line. Which is very interesting, since she married my grandfather, who passed away last year at 97, was an artist and he was absent minded. I remember, 'Russell, pick up that stuff.' So, it was very interesting that those two would get together.

JH: Tell me how you think a quilt should be used, a finished quilt how should it be used?

JSJ: I don't think there's really a rule.

JH: How do you care for your quilts?

JSJ: Well I give a lot of baby quilts to my friends. Hopefully it will be a long time before I make it to my grandchildren. When I give away a baby quilt to somebody I don't care if stains. I don't care if it rips. That's something that I want that child to really play with and love and have. I've made wall hangings, where the intent is to hang them on the wall. I keep those for myself though. I wouldn't presume to make a wall hanging for someone else's house that may or may not fit into the type of environment they want to live in. If they have some specifics requests they would want for a wall hanging, I would make that for her and then hopefully she would put it up. But she'd have to see it first. Bed quilts and things like that I wouldn't make those for anyone probably unless they were my children and I knew for sure they'd want it. It's just time consuming to make it and hope somebody likes it.

JH: How do you preserve them for the future? Like, I hear from what you're saying that you think they should be used, so then how do they get put aside?

JSJ: [inaudible.]

JH: Is it important?

JSH: Not really, not for the things that I make. Now if I make something for my children and they decide that they want to hang on to it for years and years and years to have a recollection of me, I can't control that. I'd just be happy if they get it out and use it though. I know that they don't always last and I know that this one is showing signs of wear but, if I had never seen it, never had it on my bed I never would have gotten into it personally. I don't know how important it is for my children to get it. If I keep it in perfect condition but hand it down to my children, they'll have to cut it in half so that's no good. And neither of them knew my grandmother. And I don't know, neither one of them, I mean, they have seen it hanging on the wall every day of their lives so I don't know, it may be very important to them. I guess as much as I love history there's a [inaudible.] residing in me somewhere. My own quilts--the things I make I'm not protective of. Now what other people donate to me I am very protective of.

JH: That actually ends the formal questions I have. Is there anything else you want to tell me about you or your quilts, or quilts in our lives?

JSJ: I think quilting or any kind of eye forming project when you decide you're going do something, whether it's a something that you knit, my husband is into woodworking, but you have to budget your time over a period of months. You know you have to sand it, you know you have to polish it, and you need to cut the wood, you are really committing to a long term project. I think that is a promise of life to come. When he does that… you know he backs the cars out of the garage so we're not parking in the garage for six months. It's something. Well at least I know he's planning to stay around for at least six more months. He's not going anywhere. When I start a cool project, it's like you know if I'm not in any big hurry to finish it that's time we can spend together. It's showing that you don't need those immediate rewards that it's not like watching your kids grow up. When you bring them home from the hospital you don't expect them to be 18 and then walk out. You know that you have 18 or more years of getting them ready. I think that's what life is about. Just taking the time to do it right. Quilting is like that.

JH: You've brought in a wonderful quilt with lots of history in it, and we really appreciate about what you've shared with us today. This ends our interview with Joyce Johnson. Thank you very much.

Interview Keyword

Quilting process
Family support


“Joyce Starr Johnson,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 18, 2024,