Lynne Edwards




Lynne Edwards


Lynne Edwards describes how she first learned to create cathedral window quilts under the tutelage of an embroiderer. She talks about her attitude about art quilts versus utilitarian quilts when she first began and how that attitude changed over time. She talks about "breaking the rules" of traditional styles, as well as the importance of learning the basic skills and techniques before breaking the rules. She talks about the first quilt she made, in the 1970s. She talks about visiting a museum in America and being inspired by the American quilts there. Edwards talks about the use of quilting to survive through difficult times, as well as the counseling and support among the members of quilting groups. Edwards talks about the differences between the role of quilting in American history versus English history. She talks about how quilting was an important part of American history but is rarely documented or referenced in works of the time. Edwards talks about the criteria for a museum-quality quilt versus an art gallery-quality quilt. She talks about how criteria for judging quilt shows can be a negative influence on quilters. She talks about her beliefs on the kinds of expectations quilters should have about the preservation of their quilts when giving them as gifts.




Arts and crafts.
Decorative arts
Textile artists


Lynne Edwards


Joyce Starr Johnson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Adrienne Yorinks


Houston, Texas


Lori Miller


Joyce Starr Johnson (JSJ): We're going to start today talking about the quilt that you brought with you. Do you want to put that up here?

Lynne Edwards (LE): Not a very big one at all.

JSJ: All right. Why don't we start talking about that? Why is this precious to you?

LE: It's precious to me because I began to do Cathedral Windows probably thirty years ago, in England, taught by an embroiderer. I immediately loved it. She didn't tell me how to make it in muslin, and she didn't say I had to use scraps, and she didn't say it was difficult. [laughs.] And I loved it from that moment on. I made a lot of pillows and several quilts, which were in exhibitions. I was very disparaging about small quilts to the walls. I felt they were [inaudible] and they could connect with the social history of quilts today, domestic craft, which I thought were very important. And my husband is an artist, so I was a bit sneery about [inaudible.] his art when he can charge [inaudible.]. And then I went to teach at somebody's house, because I am a teacher. She had on her wall, a small, very beautiful rug. It was on the wall. All day long I was looking at it, thinking this was a marvelous placement for a small quilt because every time you come in you see something about the fabric, the color, the balance in the design. And Cathedral Window is very heavy, and not very practical. So I decided to [inaudible.] myself up to my own prejudices and make a small quilt, start to make small pieces. [inaudible.] I could be adventurous. Where I could use fabric where it didn't matter if it wasn't durable or if it would launder. It would be purely pleasure of the design and fabric. This is the first piece I ever did like that, and it's very important to me.

JSJ: And [inaudible.] that changed your quilt making from that point?

LE: It allowed me to admit that quilt making could be adventurous and just visual pleasure, rather than for domestic purposes which was a mind-expanding concept. And it freed me up. I was [inaudible.] two times in my [inaudible.].

JSJ: Because the tape can't see this, why don't we with words describe this quilt?

LE: Of course. Well, it's a small piece. It's four cathedral windows, very balanced in the center. Twenty-five by twenty-seven and a half. The actual cathedral window piece is probably only about eighteen by twenty, in the center. It has cathedral window in its central area, and a variation [inaudible.] Secret Gardens around the edge. And I combined the two of them, which is breaking with the tradition of Cathedral Windows, because in England we don't have a tradition of it, so we break rules all the time, because we don't know the rules exist. So this was a design thing for me. It's all from silk, which was truly a nightmare. Because I went and bought the cheapest silk I could get, which was in fact dress silk. The sort of silk that when you put it on the table it would slither onto the floor and it was truly a nightmare to stitch. And I found out a lot about how to handle the medium when I use it. And a lot about the effect of color when it's inserted vertically as opposed to horizontally.

JSJ: And I see various kinds of silk. Was that important also [inaudible.]?

LE: No. Again, we broke the rules. If this is [inaudible.], the fact that some of the fabric is thicker than others actually is irrelevant. It's very relevant for a bed, but it isn't relevant because this is never going to be put through a washing machine or even hand washed. It's going to be run over with a Hoover, a vacuum cleaner. And if in time it fades, so do the medieval textiles we have in England. That doesn't matter, I'm not interested in actually, 'Will this launder at all?' It will simply grow old gracefully. [inaudible.] on a wall. It's not going to be distressed with active use. So I didn't mind. And I experimented with anything where the color [inaudible.].

JSJ: Do you use silk a lot in other quilt making? Or was this kind of an aberration?

LE: This is the first time. Also, my husband is an artist, and as such, this was way back, beginning of the Eighties, this was. We had two small boys and we did not have money, so silk is an expensive outlay. But because this is a small piece, I could buy a little amount and enjoy using it. So this was my first venture into silk. But now I don't care what I pay, I just buy it. And I do make hangings. I have a hanging in the teacher's showcase, because I'm here teaching Cathedral Window. So this was the start of Cathedral Window as a design form for me.

JSJ: And because you teach it now it also changed your life in some ways?

LE: Yes, yes. I've always taught patchworking quilting in England. I've done quite a few books, which are general patchwork books. Doing this, and really exploring the technique, allowed me to put it forward as an area of a specialty. So I did a book for The Patchwork Place, and I taught here several times, and I taught in many countries in the world. And it's simply because no one else explores Cathedral Windows. Most people don't like it very much, especially in the States.

JSJ: You like those [inaudible.].

LE: It's not even that. I think it's the fact that traditional Cathedral Window cloth is generally muslin and scraps. So when you've seen a couple you don't believe that they have anything to offer you visually. Whereas everything that I do, or I teach about it, shows the satisfaction of the design and the way it can be used adventurously.

JSJ: You've mentioned several times breaking the rules, or not knowing the rules so you break. How important is that to you in your own quilting?

LE: To break the rules?

JSJ: Or to pretend they don't exist.

LE: I have my own rules. I need it to work color-wise. I need the stitchery to be fine. I don't want full workmanship to interfere with the pleasure of this quilt. The two courses that I run in England, I have seven regular classes. I started with teaching them a basic course which lasted all year, because I felt there was no structured sequence to teaching [inaudible.] in England. People would dip into classes in shops, and sometimes the [inaudible.], but I wanted them to know what [inaudible.] handwork, machine work, rotary cutting, what thread, what needle, what pins. So I devised a course that lasted all year. And I had fourteen ladies to start with, and at the end of the year we got a little exhibit and had to do a quilt-as-you-go because they would never finish and they would avoid my eye forever in the supermarket, out of guilt. And at the end of the year we put on an exhibition. Someone at [inaudible.] twelve quilts finished, two not finished, those two still not finished ten years later. I had two classes following this. What I hadn't realized, and I should have done, was that the first group would not leave. And so they stayed on, and I have seven of these regular classes. We did a book. I say we, I wrote it, all [inaudible.] featured. And what is very important to me is that most of those quilts in that book were the first quilts they had ever made. And I like them to know the right way to do it, skills are very important. Once you have skills, you can be adventurous. The first rule of quilting is that there are no rules. But there are strategies which make [inaudible.] quilt. We can always function, because we've [inaudible.] of fabric. If we've made a mistake, we can find a way of adapting that mistake. But you need to know how to do those things. I do feel that they're very important. And I love to see them link with the tradition. So each time I've taught the techniques, we did two of them, one hand, one machine. And we try to find some reference to past quilts that I felt it sprung from, because I think the background tradition is so important. To see where things come from. I'm not at all happy with--in England, we have quite a lot of textile artists who know nothing about quilts, who are not interested in quilts, who would not associate with the grassroots quilters because it might sully their reputation as an artist. I'm not happy with that. I think that tradition is marvelous, very important.

JSJ: You mentioned that you had been a stitcher before and did patchwork before you did this. Tell me about the beginning of your quilt history. Where did you first run into quilts?

LE: I come from an academic background. I didn't stitch anything until I was 19, nothing at all. My grandmother sewed but she never showed me or shared. She was busy. My mother has never associated with a needle in her life, and we don't have the tradition that you have of mothers and daughters, in England like in the U.S., especially now. There is very little textile teaching in school, or crafts like this. Not much. It's not fashionable to sew if you're young. It's not cool at all. I didn't sew anything. When I went to teacher training course, to do geography and math, and one of the girls there showed me how to use the sewing machine to make clothes, this is 1962. I was of course a child student, you understand.

JSJ: Yes. [laughs.]

LE: Yes, quite.

JSJ: We don't record birthdates or we don't do any chronology.

LE: I don't care. And I made shifts dresses. Within two years I was making dresses that had three different [inaudible.] patterns in the dress, pushing to designs. Not plans, patterns. And I think I was a quilter waiting for quilting to happen. I made a quilt, which was a huge hexagon, when I was just married. Because that was the fashion then, early seventies, there was a lot of nostalgia, and I was caught up in that. I bought new fabric. I made this dreadful quilt, all by machine, can you believe it? It was really dire. Makes a good story but [inaudible.]. And that was the first one I did. Then I went to the American museum in Bath [England.], and I went to look at Shaker furniture. And I saw the collection of American antique quilts. I had no idea that they existed. And I thought--I honestly thought that it was fate in that room. I'd never seen anything [inaudible.]. I thought, 'I have to do this. I have to do it.' And I did it. I did English patchwork to start with, that's all I knew about. By hand, using my mother and my grandmother's and mine scraps. I made a tablecloth. Then I did a quilt in 1975 which was all brown, because that was the fashion. There were no patchwork fabric shops in England. There might have been one then, Joan Zinni-Lask, but there weren't specialist fabrics. All dress fabric. We all had brown washing up [inaudible], so we all had brown fabrics. And I only stopped using that quilt on my bed last year, when the second sampler from my course, I finished mine. And that's on the bed. If I could have carried it I would have brought it, because that's impractical.

JSJ: [inaudible.]

LE: And heavy.

JSJ: Have quilts ever helped you get through particularly important times in your life? Good times or bad times?

LE: Absolutely. Always. And my students as well. And it's bad times. It's crisis times when the regularity of stitching supports you. I'm sure you've had this all time. I have so many students who say, 'I couldn't have got through.' It makes me quite tearful. [inaudible-a long stretch.]. My husband cannot believe that quilters are so sharing because he says [inaudible.]. And quilters are not. There you go. [inaudible.] I've been fortunate I haven't had bad times, apart from my mother dying. But for me, my quilting has been a joy but its got my students through hell and back.

JSJ: As you think about the work during those difficult times, what about the other social aspects of quilting?

LE: Oh sure. I don't know. Quilters, I think it's something to do with the lack of eye contact. People are busy with their hands and they tell their colleagues the most amazing things. Amazing. I think a car journey does the same thing. You know, you get confessional in cars, because there's no eye contact. Certain handwork--I watch my students and their hands [inaudible.] each other. Sometimes they sit giving advice. 'Don't give up your car, if he doesn't give up his,' that sort of thing. Somebody once said in one of my classes, 'Quilters are so subversive, aren't they? You know they're there, stirring. Breaking traditional ground, saying, 'Have you thought about doing this, have you thought about doing that?'' And if you have a problem, there's always somebody in the class who in fact has been there, and can offer advice, counseling, support. And I think it's just the most rare of crafts. Usually when you go to learn something you're busy with what you're doing. Getting quilting is not like that at all. I think it's wonderful.

JSJ: Answering the question you mentioned that when you went to the American museum in Bath and saw traditional quilting, which is a little different than the quiltmaking in England, or the traditions of it. As you think about women's history with needlework or quilting, in England, would you say that's a less symbolic role, or as a material culture study?

LE: It certainly is. We have a quilt study group, of course now, as well as the States now. Many of the quilts in the past have been leisure activity quilts for the middle class ladies. And they don't have quite the same stories. There are stories, but not the same. I think the North Country and the Welsh whole cloth tradition in particular. They're the ones with the powerful stories. And this was only kept going really between the two wars by the women's institute, and the rural crafts industry. The interest was not there. It was kept on a very low heat by a few dedicated people--[inaudible.] people like me knew nothing. It's only come up in the last few years the research has offered what has been going on in the past. Most of our quilts they're fine, they're handsome. And they're decorative. But they're not necessarily have women's lives stitched into them. But certainly the country, the Welsh ones do have now. They come from propulsion. I think stories go hand in hand with hardship, more they do with just a leisure activity. You do that because you have to, your mother says, 'You are sewing this.' Like samplers, the original samplers, not a sampler quilt which was done as really as a demonstration of ability of a young girl looking for employment in a house, as a maid who could sew. I think it's not quite the same. I think many American quilts it comes from its all soul, so caught up with history. [inaudible.] at history, it's long, more intense and more adventurous. I mean our adventures went on the way back. Us left in England are the coat holders. We hold the coats; you go and do it which is an interesting situation to see. But of course what we did do was to send the pioneers out with techniques, and we took over, really.

JSJ: [inaudible.]

LE: Pretty good. I don't think partnership workmanship is relevant. I think it's the soul that's gone into it. Very [inaudible.]. A very strange thing is that when I was at college, teacher training college, one of my main subjects was geography. We had to do a special study. And I was very wound up with folk singing. And John Steinbeck writes a book, and all that stuff, Woody Guthrie. I did my geography study on the dustbowls, and the significance of the dustbowl [inaudible], because the social aspect absolutely fascinated me. My father worked in London and he was able to go to the American embassy and borrow things from them which were reference things, like the Tennessee Valley Authority [inaudible] and so forth, which I wouldn't have been able to get to. Never ever was there a reference to quilt making. I have no idea that [inaudible.] that it was such and people went below ground to stitch. No idea. Now why, I wonder, was that? Whether it was because it was a woman's role and it was relevant to these project recordings, I have no idea. I don't think there's a quilt mentioned in Steinbeck either. Interesting.

JSJ: And you know that they all had to keep warm somehow.

LE: Exactly. Yet I have no idea this existed. I really did that, read so much about that era especially anything around Woody Guthrie and the Grapes of Wrath and the Okies and that sort of thing. It was of great interest to me at that time. Yet, I have no idea they did quilts. [inaudible.] ten years, fifteen years old [inaudible.]. Fascinating.

JSJ: That kind of leads into one of the other areas we like to cover in terms of keeping quilts, and what are society's [inaudible.] in keeping quilts. What do you think makes a museum quality quilt? Or, what kind of quilt should go into museums?

LE: You need to define museum here. I think possibly museum in England really does mean something that has historic and social significance built-in the background of how we lived. In which case, quality is irrelevant. Or are we talking art, gallery type museum? In other words, star collection. I think if it's in a straightforward museum then it doesn't matter. What's important is where it has come from. If you're talking something like the museum in Paducah [Kentucky.], then you have to have wonderful quilts. Technically, design wise, non-derivative in the way [inaudible.]. Derivative in the way of background, of course. But it's derived from the tradition. One that in twenty years time you know that it was done in a certain time, and it's of that time, the fabric, interest, feeling and everything. And it's the top of its type. Then it's really interesting to see how quiltmakers moved on. Homemade, lovely, comfy quilts are fine in the context of social history, but I don't think they're, I think if you're really documenting the way quilting has been and where it's going. You need to have the superlatives of every era. That's what [inaudible.] because they're the movers and shakers.

JSJ: So, to clarity this, you say there are different kinds of quilts and they can be exhibited different ways depending on the purpose of that museum?

LE: Absolutely.

JSJ: And for some place like [inaudible] where they keep real markers of time and technique, what defines a really wonderful quilt for that? I heard you mention a few things.

LE: Well, one that's going to win, because I've judged quilt shows in England. You don't have to do judging courses they're not really relevant. You do have, if you like, a tick list which goes for [inaudible.], design, etcetera, etcetera. Of necessity, the real winners have got to be rich in every area. That might lead to a little bit of contrived work, because you know that even if you love that design with very little quilting on it, if you want it to be high profile, it needs to be quilted to death. So sometimes that may be a trigger in the way you approach and continue when you finish your piece. Because, actually, you may be quilting from your heart and your heart wants to win. So it's got to be all singing, all dancing, to be up there as one of those. But part of the quilt show experience is to go out and disagree with the judges. Because we see the ones that speak to us, heart wise, color wise, in particular. Yes, design and color, I think now, speak to people more than anything. It's really hard for a judge, or a museum, so really I think they would really take guidance from the ones that do win at quilt shows because they will be an excellent example in every area. So it's got to be design, use of color, placement of quilting designs in relationship to the patchwork piece [inaudible.]. Every single aspect has got to be something that is one of those real star quilts. I don't necessarily like the real star quilts. On a personal basis sometimes I do feel that they jump through a lot of hoops in order to say, 'Look at me. I'm going to win and it's ten thousand dollars,' or it's a big cup or whatever. Sometimes you get, they're over the top sometimes, for me. But then everybody has their personal choice. That's important.

JSJ: Of the quilts that you have made, have some of them gone to other people as gifts?

LE: They have. This is in fact what I'm working up to now. At one time when we really needed money, I was a member of the [inaudible.] Craft Society, which is a very prestigious soft craft society in England. I'm sure if I applied now they'd never let me in, but this was way back. They didn't have as many people. And I used to exhibit every summer in [inaudible.] on the coast, which is beautiful. The exhibition's lovely, and they sold. I sold them, and it was real money, real prices. Because the craft society acknowledges that crafts should be paid real value, proper money. And we needed proper money, we had two young boys. Once I could afford it, I haven't sold my work. In fact, now [inaudible.] who's a New Zealand artist, textiles artist really, and she had some work, she belonged for a while to a group in England called Quilt Art. She had a small exhibition, and at one of them she said to me, 'I don't sell my quilts. They have to earn me honor.' [inaudible.] because the worst thing I think you can do is to make something and it's immediately sold to somebody, and it's not somebody you love. So my policy now is I don't sell anything. When I don't need it in teaching, because we only have a little house and my son's don't want quilts, they know they're too important to me. They really don't want that burden, they're not interested and that's fine. When I think I've finished with something, what I usually do is I give it to somebody who is usually overwhelmed with the responsibility. In fact, I say, 'This is on indefinite loan.' Because they're not [inaudible.] you see, they'd be afraid of wearing their quilts out. I say, 'Use it and enjoy it. I'll borrow it back if I need it for a show or a class.' At the moment I've just made scrap quilts, because I'm about to do a book on scrap quilts next year. It's actually all my friend Judy, who is not even a very close friend, but I found myself saying, 'Would you like me to make you a quilt?' I don't know how it came up, but I found myself saying it. And it's given me such pleasure to make it. She chose the colorings. She chose liberty norm because in her idea is [inaudible] is the essence of English patchwork. And I said, 'You do realize that liberty norm will fall to pieces in twenty years, it disintegrates.' And she said, 'So will I.' I hadn't quilted over much because she doesn't really--English quilts were never quilted, or very little. She wanted it to be [inaudible.]. So it's a custom made quilt for Judy and it's finished, and it's really nice. She's going to have it when I get back up [inaudible.]. I'm hugging this quilt, and she said, 'I suppose you won't take any money.' She is rich, Judy is. I said, 'Certainly not.' Because you can't quantify the time you spent so why not make a grand gesture. It's silly to say, 'Well actually it's worth five thousand dollars.' It's much better to say, 'No, I made it for you.' And I have the ultimate compliment. I showed it in [inaudible.]. This is nearly finished. This is for my friend Judy. Some of the audience said, 'My name is Judith too, can I have it?' Which I thought was so nice. So I think it's very nice not to be selling and doing things. I actually say to the women in my classes, 'You should never make a quilt for somebody unless they really want it. You're better to make it just for yourself.' And then you test the waters, you show it to the person you think, casually, you think it may be for. If she doesn't go, 'Oh, oh, oh,' then you just quietly don't give it to her and you wait until the right person comes along. That's the person that has to be surgically removed from it later, because they love it so much. It doesn't matter whether they're family. If anybody says to you, 'Will you make me a quilt?' If you don't [inaudible.], you don't [inaudible.]. They say, 'How can I say no?' I say, 'You explain that a quilt is an heirloom because of the time it takes to make. An heirloom really has to be made for somebody whom you love.' And you say, breezily, 'Well I'm sorry, I have a backlog for my family.' And that keeps it all [inaudible.]. Nobody should be able to buy an heirloom. Just commission it. It should come from somebody who is offering that time and interest and everything, and it's not to do with money. Not for me anyway. I can say that because I earn my money through teaching, and writing, so my thoughts are a vehicle for that. But I have sold [inaudible.] them off and some of them I don't know where they are. Small hangings. And I'm sad about that.

JSJ: When you give them to people do you have any expectations about what they'll do with them?

LE: I don't give them to them unless I know what's going to happen. I know that they really want them in some way. So the expectations are there. But I have to say that a couple of years ago I had a couple of friends, women friends, who'd been really ill. And I thought, 'Come on, get your act together. Make them a small something.' I made them little cathedral window pieces which were nine patches but very intricate nine patches. One of them was a quilter, and two of them were not. I actually put them on little wire hangers so that when they got them they would know what they were supposed to do with them. Because how are they suppose to know? They went, 'Oh!' and hung it on the wall and they knew. I don't think you should have expectations. Again, what I say to my students is if you make something and you're not madly happy with it, keep quiet. Don't go on about how you hate it. Because when somebody comes along and really likes it you can give it to them. And if they don't quilt, that'll be even better. I think you should give them with no strings attached. I made two quilts for my nieces, whom I knew would love them. Interestingly enough, one of them who is a very artistic, creative, elegant, sophisticated girl still has this terrible sweetly-pretty Laura Ashley faded pink quilt that I made her when she was six, now she's thirty-three. It's [inaudible.] and I take that as a huge compliment because if she chose not to use it after the age of fifteen I would have understood. The other one, who's a television producer, has hers. She had hers for her eighteenth birthday. Machined because I knew that she didn't warrant an heirloom. She's very [inaudible.]. It's not fair to burden her with that responsibility. And she uses it all the time. So that's nice too. But I know that my sons don't want a quilt, so you shouldn't do it. If you want to try out a technique, make something small and larky, for someone who doesn't quilt. With any luck, they'll use it and destroy it and the evidence is gone, and that's fine. It shouldn't come with a government health warning. Which is what I think happens sometimes. They [inaudible.] according to if she uses it, she's disrespecting it. If she doesn't use it, she doesn't like it. She can't win, poor girl.

JSJ: I don't want to monopolize too much of your time. Is there anything that I haven't asked you that you just feel is important to your own personal history?

LE: No, except, this is a little piece. This was the first piece I did really with cathedral window as a [inaudible.]. I also brought another little piece, because if you know cathedral window, that tradition which goes back many hundreds of years with the rose insets [inaudible.] muslin scraps, no [inaudible.], no batting, no backing, no binding. I had to devise ways because I wanted frames round it. I had to devise a way of having this of equal weight to that. Or, which was [inaudible.] which was not documented [inaudible.], so I have found that in fact [inaudible] and I had to find ways to make the mat work. And now I think that [inaudible.] because the fabric is so exciting that what I'm looking at doing is cathedral window pieces that do not have a backing of any sort, because the backs are exciting. This is the sort of [inaudible.] what I mean, you see, this is the back. We have no backing, we have no formal order, it's just a [inaudible.] surface [inaudible.] tradition, because the fabric itself makes such an exciting placement of these squares, and rectangles are used as well. This is just [inaudible.]. I ought to piece [inaudible.] in here, so you get the [inaudible.]. Then somebody says, 'Why don't you just do the sleeve in two sections?' And I said, 'Yes, that's a good idea.' [laughs.] I will take this off and do it, but that's the back you see, and this is the front. And what I've done is explored another variation called Twisted Windows which makes, if you like, two sided. I really like the effect. I started with trying to fit Cathedral Window into my own [inaudible.], backings and so forth. I still do that. The last two pieces, the last three or four pieces in fact, have been like this, where you can see both sides and you can see what's happening, because the back [inaudible.]. So the tradition wins, does it not? And that's all I want to say about that really.

JSJ: Well thank you very much.

LE: Pleasure.

JSJ: This concludes our interview with Lynne on the 2nd of November, 2001, at the International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas.

Interview Keyword

Cathedral window (quilt pattern)
Wall quilts
Teaching quiltmaking
Quiltmaking classes
Quilting community
Historical significance
Quilts as gifts
Quilt purpose - Gift or presentation


“Lynne Edwards,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 24, 2024,