Emily Parson




Emily Parson


Patricia Plunk interviews Emily Parson, a quilter, at the International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas. Parson talks about the quilt she brought for the interview, which features a butterfly design. Parson talks about her process of hand dyeing fabrics, which feature heavily in the quilts she creates. She discusses personal aspects of quilting, including how she began quilting, the importance of the quilting community in her life, and how quilting impacts her family. She discusses technical facets of quilting, such as her preferred methods of quilting, how she believes quilts should be preserved, and her favorite and least favorite aspects of quilting. She talks about cultural and artistic aspects of quilting, women's history in relation to quilting, and how she is artistically inspired to create quilt designs. Parson also discusses the importance of art quilts to quilting history and their place in textile museums.




Textile artists
Fabric arts
American Folk Art Museum
Women’s voices
Crafts & decorating
Arts & crafts
Women's history


Emily Parson


Patricia Plunk

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Adrienne Yorinks


Houston, Texas


Lori Miller


Patricia Plunk (PP): This is Patricia Plunk. Today's date is November 2, 2001. It is 11:30 a.m., I'm conducting an interview with Emily Parson for Quilters' Save Our Stories project, at the International Quilt Festival, in Houston, Texas. Emily, can you please spell your last name for us?

Emily Parson (EP): p-a-r-s-o-n.

PP: First of all, I want you to tell us about the quilt today because we're working from a tape recorder and this will be in written form when people see it. Can you describe it so they can get the visual effect?

EP: It's three giant butterflies, starting with dark colors on the bottom and working up to brighter colors at the top. There are purples, golds, green, and gray.

PP: What was your inspiration for this quilt?

EP: I was in the process of working on a lot of quilts from nature. I had lived in cities. I had lived in New York City, and Boston, and Chicago for probably 15 years, and we had bought our first house and moved out to the country, in Saint Charles, Illinois. I was starting to garden and was totally getting inspired by flowers, and nature and I had done lots of flower quilts. There's something about the pattern of butterflies, the different, unlimited patterns that really, even though they weren't the block patterns that regular quilters use, it was pattern. Quilters, I think, are inspired by any kind of pattern and the patterns of butterflies were just so amazing, that's what started me. This was the third quilt that I had done with butterflies.

PP: What's the approximate size of this quilt?

EP: It's approximately 60 by 80. I think it's a little bit bigger than that, I'm not sure exactly.

PP: And this quilt is an award winner. Can you tell us a little bit about the award?

EP: I won the Masters Award for Innovative Artistry. It's one of the five masters awards given at the IQA [International Quilt Association.] show. It's a five thousand dollar prize, and is sponsored by Quilters Only fabric.

PP: What are your plans for this quilt?

EP: Most of my quilts are for sale. Although, some of the bigger ones, especially if they've been in a lot of shows, like this one is awfully special because it won the prize down here and won me the trip down here, which I had never been to Houston before for this quilt show. Some of the bigger ones I do get attached to. I don't have too much big wall space in my house to hang the really big ones anymore, but we'll build on an addition in about five years and I can hang them in my house. But most of them are for sale. It might be sold eventually.

PP: Tell us about your interest in quilting. How you got started, who taught you, what age, those kinds of things?

EP: I lived in New York City right after college. I was working as a fashion designer, and I went to a lot of textile related exhibits. There was an exhibit at the Museum of American Folk Art. This was about 11 years ago that I saw. I had always known about quilts because I did all kinds of other crafts. And my grandmother had made quilts, but they were more the traditional kind of quilts. Just seeing quilts presented in a museum as works of art, they were amazing quilts, I had never seen anything like that before. I just thought, 'You know, I can do that because I can sew some fabric together.' So I bought a couple of books in the museum store, and I just started. My first quilt was a red, white, and blue log cabin. I probably quilted on my own, learning from books, for about four or five years, and I took a few classes here and there, and taught myself to dye fabric. It was about five or six years ago that I started really veering away, although my original quilts were traditional with kind of a twist to them, some kind of original thing. When I started doing completely free form, my own drawings based on my own photographs that's when I started considering them more artwork, and the artist part of it became a lot more important to me at that point.

PP: You mentioned your grandmother. Are there other quilters in your family?

EP: No, but my mother and my sister are garment sewers. So they love to come to the quilt shows with me, and they have a lot of fun, too.

PP: Tell us about your first quilt memory.

EP: My first quilt memory would be sitting around the kitchen table at my grandma's farmhouse watching my grandma, and grandpa, and my mom cut out templates from newspaper. That's before rotary cutters were invented. They were cutting out pieces with scissors which is like, unheard of today.

PP: Tell me about which aspects of quilting you most enjoy, and also if there's one aspect you don't enjoy, let us know that.

EP: I don't enjoy putting the binding on, and the sleeve on. And I don't enjoy shipping them. But I love hand dying the fabric. When you're taking that fabric out of the machine and seeing it for the first time, and ironing it and folding it and caressing it. That's amazing. I love doing the drawings. I love machine quilting it, that's one of my very favorite parts because the top is done, you've made all the hard decisions, and then it's just kind of relaxing to sit there. I think a lot of people who don't do machine quilting think it's stressful, but to me, I think it's as relaxing as the hand quilters must think. You just get into a rhythm and it's just wonderful.

PP: Explain a little bit more about how you dye your fabrics. What's that process?

EP: I dye really large pieces because my quilts are really large. Sometimes I'll need a two or three yard piece for the background. Now since I have little children, it takes me three or four hours to get all messy and get cleaned up and I don't usually have those long chunks of time. So I maybe do it in the summer, when it's warm out outside, two or three times a year and I probably dye a hundred yards at a time. I dye cotton fabrics. I dye big tablecloths. I dye velvets and sateens. I even over dye prints, regular purchased cottons. I dye stuff that I get at yard sales. I use Procion MX dye, which a lot of dyers use. Most of my stuff is either in buckets or in baggies, and let the dye sit and wash it out after a couple of days.

PP: Talk to us a little bit about what you think makes a great quilt and what makes a great quilter.

EP: I think a great quilt, for me personally, I love art quilts. I'm a little more partial to them than the traditional quilts. Just anything that really strikes you, that pulls you in. And once you get sucked into it, that you see the technique and see that that's beautiful too, I think that's what makes a really great quilt. And a great quilter, there are just so many great quilters. To come to something like this and meet all the wonderful people. It reinforces why I do this because I love having them at shows, sharing them with people. When people say that means something to them, that it maybe inspires them a little bit to go home and do something. I don't know if that answers your question very well.

PP: You spoke earlier of your experience in New York, seeing quilt in the museum. In your estimation, what makes a quilt appropriate for a museum collection?

EP: Well, there's all different kinds of collections. I've seen Amish quilts exhibited in museums, and beautiful traditional quilts. I think it's important that museums start collecting art quilts too, because they're a huge part, especially since the late 70's, early 80's, it's a huge part of this century in quilting. I'm sorry, what?

PP: What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum collection?

EP: I think just the qualities that we talked about, about something that makes a great quilt. Some that exemplifies this time period, what people are doing. People are dyeing fabric like crazy. People are really becoming excellent in machine quilting. The kinds of quilts I used to see in shows like this, when I started going to shows about 5 years ago, versus what's out there now. People are taking classes. They're doing them at home. They're practicing. The techniques are just really exploding. I hope that museums start collecting things around that will be examples of this turn of the century, I guess.

PP: You've already told us that you do most of your work on a machine. How do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting? You obviously prefer the machine, but do you have any particular feeling about hand quilting?

EP: I love them both. I don't hand quilt, I've hand quilted only one quilt. For me, I need to machine quilt them for the time element. But I love looking at hand quilting, they're both important. The only thing that bothers me is when people think only one is the right way. Because hand quilting is beautiful and appropriate for some quilts, and machine quilting is beautiful and appropriate for some quilts. When people say, 'Oh, that shouldn't win a prize that's machine quilting that's cheating,' that takes as much skill as hand quilting, it's just different. There's room for both. I think they're both equally beautiful, they're just different.

PP: Tell us about ways that quilting is important to your life as a whole.

EP: I think the biggest thing that quilting has done in my life is my best friends are quilters. I've met these people through quilting. To me, quilting is a huge, important part of my life but my family and friends is the most important. I'm going to start to cry. I still have hormones from the baby. [laughs.] That's been the most important thing to me, all the wonderful people that I've met that are part of my life that wouldn't have been if I wasn't in the world of quilting.

PP: Is there a way that your quilts reflect your particular community or the region in which you live?

EP: Just in the way that now I'm doing nature. Before, I was doing more geometric thing when I was living in the city. I was inspired by architecture and buildings and that kind of environment. Now, I'm inspired just out in my yard and through my windows. I suppose I do a lot of flowers that are typical to my region.

PP: Can you tell us about ways that you think quilts have special meaning for women's history and experience in America?

EP: I think that all throughout history. You see some antique quilts that you know were not made from patterns; they were original works of art. I think that needlework in general is something that women have used to express their artistry and express themselves when they weren't necessarily working outside the home. They weren't really, I can't think of the right word, but they weren't really received as artists, but they could put their art into these kind of things. So that's been hugely important, even now but I think throughout history.

PP: How do you think quilts can best be preserved for our future generations?

EP: I think there are a lot of people out there collecting them now. I hope that even more people continue to collect them, like people collect paintings or pottery or photography. And if they're preserved through museums.

PP: Do you make any quilts for family or friends?

EP: I do. I make bed quilts, too. I didn't make a bed quilt until I had been quilting for about seven years. Then I made one and was like, 'Why have we never done this before?'

PP: Could you tell us, when you give these quilts to your friends and family as gifts, what has happened to those? How do you want those quilts to be treated?

EP: The only person outside the family that I've given one to as a gift, I've given some to my family, but one of my very best friends that were living in England. We went over there and they took vacation and showed us, for a week, showed us all around Europe. So I sent them a quilt afterwards and my friend said, 'I feel like Monet came to dinner and gave us a painting.' And that was the best thank-you I could have ever had. That was wonderful. They know it's something really special, and that means a lot to me.

PP: That completes all of the questions that we have, but we'd like to give you the opportunity to say what you'd like to say about quilts or quilting, or your work. Is there any other remarks you'd like to make?

EP: Oh, my studio at home. When we moved into our house, my husband knew it was important to me to have a separate room for doing my work. I have a bedroom that's on the main floor that's about 14 by 14 feet, and it doesn't look like a bedroom anymore. The walls are stark white and there's a big design wall on side and lots of bookshelves and tables all around. I have three sewing machines set up. There's fabric everywhere. I have industrial lighting in there, so it's like daylight. It's a wonderful room. I have pictures, and inspiration all around the walls. It's just wonderful to be able to have something like that at home, where I can be there with my family and run out and turn the oven on for dinner and go back and do some sewing. And when my children take naps I can have a half hour or an hour to get down to the sewing machine. It's just a huge part of my life. Even after my kids were born, it's quilts and my family are pretty much, that's what I do. I hope to continue.

PP: Thank you very much. This is the conclusion of the interview. I'd like to thank Emily Parson for allowing me to interview her today as part of the S.O.S. quilt project. Our interview concluded at 11:48 a.m. This is November 2, 2001.

Interview Keyword

Quilt collecting
Quilting as art
Quilting techniques
Quilting communities
Textile arts
Creative processes
Hand dyed fabrics
Traditional quilts
Art quilts
Artistic inspirations
Quilt museums
Textile museums
Hand quilting
Machine quilting
Quilt designs
Quilt sleeves
Quilt binding


“Emily Parson,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 16, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2493.