Janet Hartnell-Williams




Janet Hartnell-Williams




Janet Hartnell-Williams


Barbara Stavlo

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Laura McDowell Hopper


Houston, Texas


[This interview becomes louder closer towards the end. On page seven and continuing after, different people shout during the interview, in addition to speaking, faint honking, and other noises.]

Barbara Stavlo (BS): This is Barbara Stavlo, and today's date is November the fifth, 2011, and it's 10: 20 a.m. And I'm conducting an interview with Janet Hartnell-Williams for Quilters' S.O.S.--Save Our Stories, a project of The Alliance for American Quilts. Janet and I are at the International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas. Janet, will you tell me about the quilt you brought today?

Janet Hartnell-Williams (JHW): Yes. I wanted to use old pieces with newer pieces, so. And I collected a few; well I should say a number of old blocks and pieces from quilts and have incorporated them into a background of newer fabrics. And so I like to keep the traditional or the old mixed with the new, and so that's what I've done . I put it on with embroidery, and did some other embroidery, and some other little things. It's called "The Sky Is Falling," so you've got stars, and you've got little meteorites, and stuff, so if you want to think of it that way . So that was the idea behind it.

BS: Well, you said you used older quilts [JHW interrupts, inaudible.], older material. Does some of the material have any meaning to you JHW says 'No.']? Did they come from anywhere [JHW says 'No.']?

JHW: I just kind of saw them and liked them, because I am interested in the old fabrics [BS says 'Huh,' unidentifiable noise.], the old fabrics are so interesting. I've collected a bunch of blocks because of the fabric. I may never ever use them, but I try to use some of them.

BS: So you just pull the old quilts apart?

JHW: Well, no. These were stars that just were never used. I bought them somewhere, and somebody just had never done anything more with them after they pieced them, and so that's what I've done.

BS: Oh. Well. Okay, okay. [JHW says 'So.'] So you enjoy bringing the old in with the new [JHW interrupts with answer.] and--?

JHW: Right, right.

BS: [BS muses and JHW agrees during the first two sentences.] Oh, all right. Okay, okay [JHW murmurs agreement.]. The quilts that you've done, why did you choose this one to bring today?

JHW: Because that's what I would like to be known as I think, somebody who can do contemporary quilts, but bringing in the traditional and the older. Preserving the older with the newer, even though I do quite a bit actually that has nothing that's old in it. Sometimes, I do this because I can't let go of the traditional and the old yet, but I want to move on to the new. And so, sometimes I bring them both together that way.

BS: So, someone was viewing your quilt . The thought that they would think about you would be that you preserve the past, that--?

JHW: Maybe. But that I'm willing to go ahead a little bit, it's not all just traditional quilts. I wouldn't want to be known as just a traditional quiltmaker. I'd like to be known as someone who makes semi-traditional quilts and contemporary quilts as well , so.

BS: Do you have any funny stories that go along with this quilt?

JHW: [JHW and BS talk at same time.] Yeah, I was trying to think of funny stories and nothing very funny happens to me [They laugh.] when it comes to quilts. I can't think of anything that really would be called funny.

BS: Do you use this quilt for [JHW interrupts with 'No.' before BS finishes.] anything? Is it--?

JHW: No, I don't. It's stored in my closet, and I'm not quite sure what I'm going to do with it [BS laughs.]. I have a closet full of quilts [JHW laughs,. BS says, 'You have a closet full of quilts.']. [JHW laughs, then BS laughs.] I've tried to do something with them. I give some of them away [BS says, 'You did?'] , and I contribute some to fundraisers. One Christmas I picked out a handful and sent pictures to everybody in my family I thought might want one. And [I.] said, 'Pick one of these, and you can have it [BS says 'Oh.'] for Christmas.' And so, that's what I did one time. But, I belong to a couple of organizations that have fundraisers [UP speaks, BS says 'Huh, huh' three times.], and so I've used some that way.

BS: Well, down the road you said you have a bunch of quilts. Down the road [JHW says 'Yeah.'], what will happen to your quilts?

JHW: Well, my mother is a quilter , but I will probably get her quilts. I have a sister and her niece, and I have a sister-in-law who are interested in quilts, so I suppose that they will get them. [BS says 'Okay.'] We haven't really discussed that yet, so [They laugh, inaudible words, horn honks.].

BS: Ok, tell me your interest in quiltmaking. When did it start?

JHW: I've been a schoolteacher. Not because I strived to be a schoolteacher, I just ended up being a schoolteacher. And in 1980, my mother had started an interest in quiltmaking, and she lived in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. And there was no quilt store there in 1980 when everything was starting [BS says 'Hmm.'] back--quilting is becoming popular again [BS coughs]. And I was eager to get out of teaching [JHW laughs.], and so we talked about that, and we decided to open a quilt store. But, I had never made a quilt before [JHW laughs.].

BS: Had your mom?

JHW: She had a quilt that her mother had started that she finished. And she had started becoming interested, and she was just kind of aware of [BS murmurs.] what was going on. And she's a charter member of the International Quilt Association, and so, she came to the first festival [BS says 'Uhuh.'] here in Houston. I don't know if it was a year. I don't know if it was as much as two years later, so she had just started making quilts. She had some experience with it. And so, but there was a need for a quilt store in the Valley, there was nothing there. So, I thought, 'Well, why not?' I had sewed. So, I tried to make my first quilt by myself [UP speaks, UP laughs.]. I sewed around the whole block, two blocks all the way around [BS says 'Uhuh, Uhuh.']. That's not quite going to work [JHW laughs.].

BS: Still have it?

JHW: No, I got rid of that.

BS: You got rid of it [JHW speaks.]?

JHW: I couldn't go any further. I sewed the blocks together, so I took a class. I was still teaching school. We had a half a year of school left. So, I took a quilting class from a store that was in San Antonio, and I used polyesters. And I made a large sampler quilt , and actually, I think my mother showed me three basic blocks before I took that class, at home. So, from then on, I guess I took another class. I just started doing, because I knew how to do it by that point, and we had planned to open at the end of the summer. We had planned a month long trip to go visit all the quilt conferences [BS laughs.], and things that we can do, and so we did . We went to California, because my sister lived there, and on the way there was a conference in Albuquerque. There was one in somewhere in California, and we went and stopped at quilt stores, and [BS laughs.] we did all this research and studying, and of course came to the show here and did the wholesale show, and took classes on how to run a store. And so we opened up the store in a little house, and I lived in the house.

BS: Oh, you did?

JHW: Yeah.

BS: In the Rio Grande Valley?

JHW: Yeah, in McAllen, Texas [BS repeats McAllen, says 'Okay.']. And so [UP speaks.], before I knew it, I was a quilter [JHW laughs.].

BS: You were the expert.

JHW: I was the expert [BS says, 'You owned the store,' both talk at the same time]. I was the expert, and I wasn't really, but to everybody else [unidentifiable noise, BS laughs.], I was [laughs.].

BS: Well, do you have a certain amount of hours a week you work on a quilt [unidentifiable noise.], or is it just kind of whenever you can get to it?

JHW: I don't have children. I have a husband who is a bicycle rider, so he goes off and does his bicycle [BS says 'Uhuh.'], and when he worked, of course. I retired before he did, so I had some time. But even when I was working, he was going to school or something, so I had evenings a lot of times and so I used to spend most my evenings doing that . Now, we are both retired, so we do other things as well . But I do need to quilt. If I skip a day because we've been busy, I do need to give it an hour or so a day. I don't have a set time anymore, I don't know if I ever did. But it was a lot of time [BS murmurs agreement.], but these days I do have to do it [either JHW or BS says 'Yeah.']. I can't not [BS laughs until so.] do it. So, I make time.

BS: What is your first quilt memory?

JHW: When I was little , we lived on a farm. And in the closet of my brothers' room, there was a quilt rolled up on like the two ends of a big quilting frame, it had a white background. And it had three concentric circles in each block that had been buttonhole stitched down. And that was the quilt. My mother's mother had started that quilt and not finished it, and mother had just ended up with it. My grandmother was still living, but for some reason she ended up with it. And that's the quilt my mother finished. I remember seeing that standing in the closet, and I didn't really think much about it. It was just stored there. But, we didn't have quilts at home. But, that's the first time I remember a quilt in our house, anyway.

BS: But, do you get together with friends in a guild or anything and quilt or are you more of a--?

JHW: [JHW interrupts BS with answer.] I'm more of a solitary person. I am a member of two guilds and a fiber art group. When we had the store, we started a quilt guild in the Valley , and I was, of course, very active in that. But, now I just don't feel that I have the time to give [JHW half laughs.] to being on committees and doing that kind of thing. I have a little bit of a part in the quilt show in New Braunfels, Texas, but it's not something that takes a lot of my time.

BS: Do you teach [?

JHW: I did, and on occasion I will teach something, teach a class now and then.JHW continues, but BS interrupts and words are inaudible.].

BS: In your store [JHW and BS interrupt each other, then JHW answers.]?

JHW: One of the quilt stores in town. I gave a one day class there last year. Once in a while something comes up, or somebody hears that I could teach them, I will . But I don't as a regular thing anymore.

BS: Well, the next question is how does quiltmaking impact your family? I would think it would impact yours a lot. Meaning as you own the store, and you [JHW says, 'Well.'] quilt with your mom.

JHW: Yeah, we closed that. I don't now. We don't have a store now.

BS: Oh, you don't have it?

JHW: No [BS says 'Ok.']. Actually, only did it for five years. And I had a need to get out of the Valley. I don't know if you're familiar with Valley, it's a very away far place; it's on the Mexican border. And it's kind of culturally deprived [JHW laughs.], and I just needed to get away to someplace where there was more going on and a different environment. And we had only planned to do it for maybe five years. It wasn't something we were going to do forever . I went to San Antonio [BS says 'Ok.'].

BS: [JHW and BS interrupt each other, and then BS goes ahead.] You said that you felt a need to quilt [JHW says 'Yes.'] if you skipped a day. What is it that you find so pleasing about it?

JHW: I'm a handwork person. And it's very soothing and relaxing to me. Machine work tenses me up. I do some machine piecing, but I enjoy the handwork, the appliqué, the quilting , and I do some embroidery on some of them. And recently, I've gotten into listening to audio books while I do it [BS chuckles.], and it's so calming. And I just need down time a lot of times. I'm good at saying no to things, to requests to do something, because I get harried, if I don't have time to go sit and quilt or do something with that.

BS: Is there an aspect of quilting that you don't enjoy?

JHW: Well, machine work [BS says, 'The machine.']. The machine part. I've never really been able to sew a straight line, and it's given me great grief [BS lightly chuckles.], and I don't like trying to miter binding corners. I can miter a border, but I hate to do the corners on a binding. Oh, it gives me grief.

BS: You said that you like mostly the hand, the handwork [JNW says, 'Yes.'], for sure [JHW murmurs agreement.]. In your favorite techniques and materials, what are they?

JHW: I use cotton fabrics. I know a lot of people are using it in fiber artist [inaudible word sounds like 'art.']. If you do the art quilts, like silks and stuff [horn honks.]. And I just haven't gotten into that, but prefer cotton fabrics. Cotton type battings, yeah, it could be a blend, a cotton with a little bit of [horn honks.] polyester in it. I'm still using some of the thread we had in the store 30 years ago [JHW laughs.]. So, I'm not really picky about thread.

BS: Well, describe your studio, where you work, where you create. Where do you get your creative [microphone noise, JHW starts to answer with 'Well.'] ability?

JHW: Well, I've always had a room of my own , and when we built our new house five years ago, we built my studio too. It's not as big as it should be , because there's no room for a chair for my husband to come in and sit and visit. But, I made a point that my fabrics should be out of the light . We had an old house, and we had to kind of gerrymander some things and my fabric faded [JHW laughs.] because it wasn't covered . Fluorescent lights do that, and I like fluorescent lights, that's one thing I've always had. We made a space for my sewing machine in the wall, so it's not on the table where I'm laying things out, and I do have a design wall.

BS: You do have a design wall [BS and JHW interrupt each other, then BS says 'Ok.']?
JHW: Yeah, I have two big tables so that it's one big table. So, I can lay things out.

BS: And that's how you use it? You lay everything out on it, that way you can get a--?

JHW: [BS and JHW interrupt each other during beginning of first sentence; BS says 'overfill' after JHW says yeah.'] Well, yeah. Well, depending what I'm doing [JHW light coughs.]. I tend to like to use multiple fabrics. I'll go with a color plan, like this is multiple fabrics, and I tend to work that way. I have not made a quilt in many years where I picked three or four fabrics and made a quilt where every block is the same, so I just go to my stash. And I pull out my blue basket, if I'm doing basically blues and pull out all the blues and see what works [ BS laughs,]. So, my table is for that, and then I put them up on the wall too and see how it goes together.

BS: Okay, okay. What do you think personally makes a great quilt? What do you enjoy in a quilt?

JHW: That's a good question [JHW laughs.]. There are some standards of course. You have to have some standards of what a great quilt is. [UP laughs.] I think technique is very important, and then I think your first impression is important. When you first see it, does it really grab you? But a quilt that one person would see that way wouldn't be that way to me probably. But, there are quilts that historically, we know that are in all the books, and that have been picked by many people as great quilts. But, I think top quality technique, and an eye for balance of design and color are important. Although, there are some exceptions. I once bought a quilt made by a black woman in South Carolina or somewhere at a flea market type thing, that had all kinds of fabrics in it--corduroys, satins , velvets, cottons, everything, and it was just cut up pieces and just put all together like some of the Gee's Bend quilts. And it's so graphic, it should be on the wall, and I've used it in that way some, and I don't know if it's a great quilt, but it's a wonderful quilt.

BS: [They laugh; both speak at the same time.] In the eye of the beholder [JHW says 'Yeah.']. Well, what makes a quilt artistically powerful?

JHW: Well, it is [BS interjects with 'It is.'] the color, and how does it hit you? That one was a great quilt in a sense, in its own way [BS and JHW talk at the same time.].

BS: Well, as a person, as a quilter, what do you think makes a great quiltmaker ?

JHW: [JHW sighs.] Well, again, you have to be aware of your skills, I think. You've got to develop your skills and do them well. [BS says, 'But even though the lady from South Carolina might not have great skills, she is a quiltmaker.]. [JHW interrupts BS with 'That's true.']. [BS speaks, and JHW interrupts by saying, 'Right, right.'] I don't know if she was a great quiltmaker, though. [BS says 'She was.'] I'm not sure I'd call her a great quiltmaker. She was a quiltmaker, but I don't know if she was a great one [JHW laughs.]. But [BS or both laugh,], I think a great quiltmaker is someone who pays attention to the details and has a sense of color and sense of design. Even if it's a traditional kind of a quilt, she's got to pick the colors, and she's got to quilt it, and she's got to put some of her own creativity into it.

BS: Okay. Are there some artists that have influenced you?

JHW: I tend to like artists who are bold with their color. Some of the abstract artists kind of catch my eye when I see splashes of color, and I think, 'Oh, that's a good color scheme for a quilt.' And I like reds, and I like things that are bright. Even though I like that, I realize that I see those kind of works , and I think that's what I want to do, and then I realize that oftentimes my quilts are actually kind of dark. And I don't know why [JHW laughs, microphone noise.], because I like the bright colors. And the bold designs, but just generally artists that use a lot of color.

BS: [rustling like noise.] In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history in America?

JHW: Well, through S.O.S. we're recording the life--well, I'd guess you'd say the lives; it's not their whole life, but a great part of their life is being recorded and because of the quilts. If it weren't for the quilts, this wouldn't be happening. And people have put collections of people's lives in books too because of their quiltmaking . And in that they tell the story of how they traveled across the country, and what they did to make a living and strive to keep going sometimes, and quilts are a part of that.

BS: What has happened to the quilts that you've made for those of family and friends? Do they use them or do they display those [JHW interrupts before 'display 'with'Yep, yep. during the question.]?

JHW: Well, at least when I go to the house they're displayed [JHW laughs and then BS laughs.]. My sister-in-law, my brother's family pretty much used up one quilt I gave them. The kids would use it a lot. Yes, I think they've used them. They've displayed them or used them.
BS: Good, good. And what do you think the biggest challenge is confronting quiltmakers today ?

JHW: I think the cost of producing a quilt. The price of fabric has more than doubled in 30 years, and I personally find it very difficult to pay 10 dollars a yard for fabric . Luckily, I have a stash, and I just add a little bit [BS laughs.] to it here and there to keep it a little fresh. But, I think the cost is a big concern, and I don't know what to do about that. There are fiber quilt artists who do use recycled or repurposed fabrics [BS says, 'As you do in yours.'] Yes. [BS says 'Yeah.'] But, you still have to get those. You still have to purchase them, and some of those kinds of things are--of course, if you get lucky, and you go to an estate sale or something , where someone's getting rid of something, and they don't realize what its value is. But, I think that's a big part of it right there. But, it's not causing me to quit. People aren't stopping doing it [BS laughs.], you know. Maybe it's not, maybe that's just my problem [BS laughs, JHW laughs, ] A problem for me, I don't know.

BS: Well, is there anything else you'd like to tell us Janet about your quilt or your quiltmaking?

JHW: No, just that it's an important thing [JHW laughs.]. When you talk to other people who are quilters, they'll tell you how important it is to their lives.

BS: Has it ever gotten you through a difficult time in your life or--?

JHW: Not really. I don't really use it for that kind of thing. Luckily, I haven't had too many tragedies in my life or needed something to help me get through it. So, I do it [horn honks.] because it's fun, because it gives me pleasure. I'm making something that's not totally just for display or to sit around, it's something that can be used, and you have a tangible thing when you get through, that has been put together, having been made of multiple things. And anybody who creates something feels satisfaction from doing that, and so it makes a person's life more exciting [JHW lightly laughs.]. I'm glad I found it [JHW laughs.].

BS: Well, thank you so much Janet for bringing this beautiful piece with you. I've enjoyed interviewing you [JHW says 'Thank you.'] and seeing your piece.

JHW: Thank you.

BS: I'd like [rustle like noise.] to thank Janet for allowing me to interview her today for the Quilters' S.O.S. [unidentifiable crash noise.]--Save our Stories Oral [unidentifiable noise.] History [unidentifiable crash noise.] Project. Our interview is concluded at 10:43 [a.m.].


“Janet Hartnell-Williams,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 16, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2509.