Julie John Upshaw




Julie John Upshaw


JoAnn Pospisil interviews Julie John Upshaw, an art quilt creator and winner of the best quilt award at the International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas. Upshaw discusses her background as a painter and how it influences the quilts she creates. She talks about her unorthodox methods of creating quilts, preferring to honor creativity over accuracy or tradition. She discusses the role of quilts in her family, community, and personal life.




Textile artists
Decorative arts
Crafts & decorating
Women’s voices
Fabric arts


Julie John Upshaw


JoAnn Pospisil

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Pam Neil


Houston, Texas


Megan Dwyre


JoAnn Pospisil (JP): This is JoAnn Pospisil interviewing Julie John Upshaw at the International Quilt Festival on November 1, 2002. Julie, do you want to start by just telling us how you began in quilting?

Julie John Upshaw (JU): I come from a painting background. I got a B.F.A in Art at University of Texas at Austin and so I sort of came into the backdoor of quilting through art, not through the quilting part.

JP: When did you actually start quilting?

JU: About four and a half years ago, 1998.

JP: Okay, is there a quilting background in your family?

JU: I recently found out my great-grandmothers did quilt, but I never knew about it until recently.

JP: Okay, art quilts or possibly more of the utilitarian patchwork quilts are what your grandmother--

JU: My great-grandmother worked in polyester I thought that was pretty wild.

JP: [laugther.] Oh, Okay.

JU: They were really bold colors.

JP: Okay. And they [indecipherable.] into your art later? [laughs.]

JU: Well, I didn't know about it, but now that I've found her, I'm sure that that's the gene pool I came down from.

JP: Let's talk about the quilt that you have, it's called "Human Nature" that took first place in the Art Quilt category this year. Can you tell us something about the technique you used?

JU: I guess I call it machine drawing, because my background's in drawing so I really think of the sewing machine as a drawing tool and the technique is straight out of Drawing 101 because it's contour lines. The quilt is constructed by hand as far as making holes in the quilt, but I guess it's fabric manipulation. Then I add the machine drawing or embroidery on organza. The quilt has five layers all together.

JP: Can you tell us something about this particular design? What the inspiration is?

JU: This is the first quilt that I have human figures in. Most of my work has organic forms, some people call them worms.

JP: Okay, well maybe if you can bring the piece that you do have here with you into the conversation. I think that's one of your organic forms. [laughs.]

JU: Right, right. I've done a lot of this kind of thing. This piece is called "Leaf with Burdens." It is based on a theme, the garden theme, and then by contrast this piece has the figures in it, so sometimes I do include figures. They've been worms for a year, but I could see them going into any organic forms, like the figures or--I'm not sure where I'll go next with it.

JP: Well tell us about the fabric.

JU: I hand dye most of my fabric. I do use some commercial fabric but most of it's hand dyed or hand painted and then recently I've started using the sheer organza.

JP: Okay and that's in this piece that you've brought with you.

JU: Right.

JP: And you do some painting also, or is it all painted stitch?

JU: This is all machine drawn and hand dyed, there's no painting on this one.

JP: Okay and I see you're using the sheer here, what is actually in the quilt here?

JU: Organza as well.

JP: Oh, organza? And what kind of back?

JU: The back is a whole cloth piece of fabric just painted so you can see the painting through the sheer organza. I use the organza so you can see all the way through the layers.

JP: I see.

JU: And some pieces you can see all the way through completely, like this one, and some pieces you can just see to the background layer that's painted.

JP: Okay and are they generally five layers?

JU: Some are seven. I haven't been working with three layered quilts too much, most have more layers, five to seven.

JP: Okay and you said you started in 1998, when did you first start entering shows?

JU: A year ago, Houston. Houston was the first juried show I got into a year ago right now.

JP: Can you explain this pattern with the human forms and the tumbling forms? What was your inspiration for that?

JU: [the forms do not tumble. the interviewer had the quilt sideways.] This one's unusual because it was affected by the outer world, usually my work is introspective, but I started this on September 7th, and then we had the world events on the 11th and the people in Afghanistan, we kept seeing images of them in caves and so this piece reflects that as well as the colors we kept seeing were those earth colors and ochre and things on the news. This piece was influenced by that whereas most of my pieces are pretty introspective.

JP: So how would you contrast this piece that you have in the show and this piece that you have here? The inspiration for that as opposed to this, this was affected by world events, what was your thought mode when you were designing this?

JU: It's just all a processes. I keep a sketch pad of running ideas and so some of them I develop into real quilts and some of them I might not, and I might occasionally be influenced by something outside the sketch pad like this. I really just see it as a continual process and some quilts get made, and some don't.

JP: [laughs.] Okay, can you describe the thread? Do you dye the thread?

JU: No, I don't remember the name of the brand. I use the same brand of thread. I don't even know what it is. Maybe it's rayon. I think its Isocord. [a brand of thread.] I've almost been working exclusively with black thread, so this is a departure with the colors. I've been working either in black or white, just like drawing, but I'm starting to add some colors into the thread.

JP: Would you like to talk about the black and white piece you have here on the end?

JU: This is sort of to give you an idea of how the figures are constructed with the contour lines, but again it's just I think of that as a drawing, and not necessarily a quilt; it's like a sketch.

JP: So it's sort of a sketch for this perhaps?

JU: It came afterwards.

JP: Oh afterwards, sorry. [laughs.]

JU: Sometimes I'll do little pieces that are just sketches and then sometimes it'll develop into a bigger idea, and then sometimes this might be incorporated into a larger piece, on top of canvas or something like that.

JP: The things you do on the machine, quilting, what kind of machine do you use?

JU: A [undecipherable.] right now that I just burned the motor out on. [laughter.] I'm getting a new top of the line machine with this award so we'll see where it goes.

JP: Okay. [laughs].

JU: I'm very primitive though. I use a piece of chalk and straight stitch and just draw from there. Some people have been asking if I do computer generated images and I don't know that that can be done on more than a six inch scale. I don't know if that's possible but I just use chalk and a straight stitch to do free motion embroidery and quilting.

JP: So you basically taught yourself to quilt?

JU: Right, right. I took the basic machine quilting class that came with the machine when you bought it but no classes.

JP: So, when you do your quilting how many hours do you generally work in a week or do you have a set routine?

JU: I have young children, so they're in school half day, and one is all day, so when they're at school I work. I try not to do laundry [laughs.], I try not to answer the phone, I try to just work when they're in school, and then on Saturday I call it "Sacred Saturday" and since my son was eight months old, my husband has let me have that whole day as my studio day so if I have to think or develop more conceptual things I use the Saturday as an eight hour block at least or a twelve hour block to think and then during the week I do the more rote machine quilting type of things.

JP: So you have great support, family support.

JU: I do, my husbands a saint. I wouldn't be here this whole week if he wasn't.

JP: [laughs.] That's wonderful, I'm sure that's what helps you to devote as much time as you can Sacred Saturday sounds like a wonderful idea. One of the questions here is 'how does it impact your family?' apparently you just have a very cooperative--

JU: Heavily though, my whole house is organized for this. I've taken over three rooms in the house and there's no TV in the center of the house because I don't want my kids and the whole family to be centered around that and I like that my kids see that I'm working and they have their art supplies in my studio so when I'm working they're working, so it's just had a huge influence.

JP: Creativity. What is it that you actually find pleasing about quilting?

JU: Everything, I'm obsessed with it. I love the process. Some people ask me why I don't just paint, but I just love the whole process, it fits with my whole life style and there are things you can do with quilting that you can't do with paint. You can't draw on both sides of something with paint or pencil. Quilting's the only medium where you can draw on both sides of something at the same time so I love that.

JP: So there's nothing that you do not enjoy about quilting?

JU: I don't like anything that has to hang straight. [laughter.] I don't use a ruler I don't measure. I don't like any of that. I will put a traditional binding on some things and block it out but I don't like that.

JP: [laughs.] Okay. What do you think makes a great quilt?

JU: I don't have a clue. I guess for me personally if you're left with something, if you think about the quilt long after you've seen it, if you want to go back to it, if you want to examine it closer. That's what, personally, I think makes a great quilt.

JP: Okay and what makes a quilt artistically powerful especially since you are the artist that's become a quilter?

JU: The content. I think right now there's trends toward surface design and I think that is valuable but I really like to see content in the work beyond just design elements, this is my personal bias.

JP: Okay, elaborate on that.

JU: I like to see an artist developing a theme, where it's evolving. When there's a quilt artist that I like I want to see more than one piece from that artist and I like to see where they're going with that idea and how they fully develop it. I think that comes from the art background. I think you're looking for the artist to develop things and explore issues and how they deal with concepts.

JP: Okay. [8 second pause.] Obviously it says how do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting, have you ever done any hand quilting?

JU: I have, and I love the process of hand work, I love the relaxation, and I'd probably be the last person I ever thought would do machine quilting. I don't even like the electric pencil sharpener. I don't know anything about my computer. [laughter.] I know how to do my one thing on my machine. I just recently used the zigzag stitch; I'll never use those other stitches, really. So I'd be the last person I that thought would be machine quilting. But I do like hand work so much, I took up knitting last year as a hobby since the quilting has become work. [laughs.] I still need something to do with my hands.

JP: So it's a tactile, it's the feel of the fabric and the thread?

JU: Yes, and the relaxation, the unwinding, not having to think about it and not having the noise of the machine.

JP: Okay, I hadn't thought about that. I never had machine quilted. I always have hand quilted but I hadn't thought about the fact that there would be a noise factor.

JU: I don't like the noise. I mean my machine is very quiet, but the noise was a factor when I thought about machine quilting, but sometimes I put on headphones and listen to music and I don't notice.

JP: Okay, well that's one way to get around it. [laughter.] Does your quilting actually affect your community involvement and your region or anything like that?

JU: I'm very involved in my son's school with making class quilts for auctions and I feel like it's important to expose kids to art quilts as well as traditional quilts. I go in a talk to classes about that and do community projects that way.

JP: Is there any kind of regional influence in the design?

JU: I don't think so. As far as the organic images and stuff, I grew up in east Texas and so, it's like a jungle out there [laughs.] with snakes and that sort of thing, but are you asking maybe about artists' influencing me in the region or the actual--

JP: Just in what ways is your quilting possibly influenced by regional influences or your upbringing perhaps? As you said you grew up in East Texas.

JU: Well, yes I grew up in Dallas. We had a lake in East Texas and I went to the lake every week and I saw bugs and worms and organic forms and all kinds of freaky things, so that influenced me. Studying art with some Texas artists that are well known at the University of Texas that had some influence probably. Other than that I don't think so.

JP: Okay. How do you think quilts should be used?

JU: I don't think they should be. [laughs.] I mean they can be, I have nothing against a bed quilt, if someone made me a bed quilt I would put it on there, I've never made one. I really think of it as art on the wall, or I've made floor cloths for sculptural pieces that should be seen from all sides. Sometimes I know I cross the line into things that might not be a quilt by definition.

JP: Have you done clothing?

JU: No.

JP: No, Okay. How do you think we should preserve quilts for future generations?

JU: I don't know, I think that's a unique quilt issue. I don't think much about preserving and I try to put the best work and craftsmanship into it and I do try to use paints and inks that are permanent, but I'm not as concerned with what happens next.

JP: Okay but some people focus on the museum aspect, they should go to museums, others think families should maintain--

JU: I would love to see museums preserve quilts, as they would do any art.

JP: I think they do, I mean a great many do, but it's just a matter of--people think they don't belong in museums, they should be used.

JU: I definitely think they belong in museums.

JP: [laughter.] It's a personal thing.

JP: Do you make quilts for friends? You said you make them for your children's school but for family?

JU: Right, not family. I don't know that they want to live with the worms. [laughs.] but I've make just a couple for friends, baby gifts and that sort of thing but usually I tie-dye stuff and give tie-dyed clothing.

JP: So you do other art things beside quilting?

JU: Just the dyeing, for the fabric, but I tie-dye all my family's clothing.

JP: Okay.

Judy Kriehn: (JK): Even the underwear?

JU: [laughter.] Even the underwear.

JP: You said all. [laughter.]

JU: They all match.

JP: What are your plans for this quilt that's in the quilt show this year, that one first place in the art quilt?

JU: This quilt was just sold yesterday, and it's my first piece that's sold that's not a commission or an auction piece so it'll go live somewhere else.

JP: So basically you quilt as a commercial endeavor?

JU: I'd like to sell my work in galleries and to individuals. I think of it as art just as you sell painting.

JP: Some of these are not applicable, 'Why did you bring this quilt to the interview?'

JU: I know. [laughs.]

JP: Well, it won the prize. We covered your interest in quilting as having been fairly recent, growing from your art experience and--

JU: And I think the lifestyle too, I couldn't do oil paints and have a family with small children, it just doesn't work. It's toxic and you have to paint all at one session, and I can do ten minutes here or fifteen minutes there with quilting and still get something finished.

JP: You said you work everyday, and Saturdays are sacred.

JU: Very.

JP: What is your first memory of quilting, or of a quilt within your family?

JU: Not within my family, the first time I saw a quilt was, we had moved to a small town, to Sherman, where my husband took a job, and I was trying to commute to graduate school, driving sixty miles each way and my car kept breaking down, so I dropped out of graduate school, and came home and was crying in my house and turned on PBS and I saw Penny McMorris's show "The Great American Quilt" and at the end they would show the art quilts, and I didn't know what those were but I thought, 'Oh, I want to do that someday." So, I started by dyeing fabric in the kitchen. I didn't have a sewing machine and the sewing didn't come first. The dyeing fabric was first. I tried batik with wax and surface design techniques came before the actual quilting and stitching for me.

JP: And that was in '98?

JU: No, that was earlier, I probably dyed fabrics and experimented with that in '92 probably. I was teaching as well, I was a Montessori preschool teacher, so I was just experimenting on the side of doing that.

JP: Are there quilters among, you said not among your family necessarily, but friends?

JU: Oh, yes, I love having my small art quilt groups. I couldn't get by without them.

JP: Do you teach quilting?

JU: No, I don't. I've taught art, and I do work with kids every year, classes of kids, and teach them techniques, but I don't teach grownups.

JP: Have you ever used quilting to get you through a difficult time in your life?

JU: I've always used art to get through anything. I mean, art's the one thing that I've had through everything, so I've always drawn and I'd say I definitely rely on it.

JP: What makes a great quilter?

JU: I guess somebody that really has a passion for it and really pursues it and does the work, does the work, does the work.

JP: As in any other endeavor. [laughter.] Well, how do great quilters learn the art of quilting, especially how to design a pattern or choose fabrics and colors?

JU: I'll go out on a limb here, I'd like to see people take fewer classes and be less influenced by the elite quilters. I'd like to see more individual voices in the quilting and not so much of the flavor-of-the-month, or the book that's out right now. I mean I would like those artists to make their living on the books but then I'd like people to put more of themselves in it.

JP: Spontaneous creativity as opposed to--

JU: Yes, Yes.

JP: In what ways do you think quilts have a special meaning for women's history and experience in this country?

JU: I don't address the historical issues so much. I look more to the future. I feel like art quilting's still at the beginning and I don't think of the history as much.

JP: Do you have anything else that you want to offer as far as this quilt that has one the prize or any comments about the process that you use in creating the quilt? Is there anything that you did that we haven't discussed?

JU: I don't think so.

JP: Okay, well I really don't have other questions as far as this quilt or the other pieces which you've described beautifully. They way you've put together the fabrics and the threading it's beautiful.

JU: Thank you very much.

JP: You did a beautiful job, and the spontaneity and the creativity is evident. What are your plans for the immediate future in quilting?

JU: Oh, just lots more work. I really want to focus on doing a lot more work, I'd like to have twice as much as I have in my body of work and just keep going with it.

JP: So you do your really hard working on Saturday and the creative process.

JU: Yes, I'd like to see more long stretches of time, but it'll take a little while, until the kids get a little older.

JP: Okay, how old are your children?

JU: Four and six, oh four and seven, he just turned seven this weekend. [laughs.] Get that on the record. [laughter.]

JP: And your husband's been supportive since you started?

JU: Absolutely, he's got a new job that has really demanding hours and he's still supporting my time so I'm very lucky.

JP: Fantastic, well that's the questions that I have for you today and if you have any closing remarks?

JU: Just thank you.

JP: Well, thank you very much for taking the time to let us talk about your work. This is November the 1st. We'll repeat that, here at Houston at the International Quilt Festival. Julie John Upshaw being interviewed by JoAnne Pospisil and I thank you very much.

JU: Thank you very much.

Interview Keyword

Quilt techniques
Quilt designs
Machine quilting
Women and quilting
Hand quilting
Technical preferences
Traditional quilts
Art quilts
Parent involvement
Quilting in communities
Artistic influences
Home quilts
Bed quilts
Quilt preservation
Quilts as gifts
Creative processes
Quilting as art


“Julie John Upshaw,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2497.