Jean Champagne




Jean Champagne




Jean Champagne


Eleanor Wilkinson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor


Battle Creek, Michigan


Eleanor Wilkinson


Eleanor Wilkinson (EW): This is Eleanor Wilkinson. This interview is being conducted for South Central Michigan Q.S.O.S., a project for the Alliance for American Quilts. Today I am interviewing Jean Champagne at the Art Center in Battle Creek, Michigan. This is Feb. 10, 2011 and the time is 10:29 a.m. [sounds of children playing in adjoining room.] Let's first talk about the quilt that you brought in today.

Jean Champagne (JC): Okay.

EW: Why don't you just tell me why you chose this quilt, first.

JC: The little flowers are the Magic Vine and it's a pattern that came from the newspapers in the 30's, I guess. I'm not sure. And then it was on "Simply Quilts." They had the San Jose, California Art something, was selling the pattern for it.

EW: Oh, so that's where you got the pattern?

JC: For the flowers.

EW: Oh, I see.

JC: This was supposed to have been an Irish Chain type background and those were just a center block.

EW: And so you rearranged the design a little bit.

JC: Because it was supposed to be one long vine, several of them across the quilt. But when I got to putting it together all of the Irish Chain stuff detracted. And I put all the work into the flowers rather than that, so who wants the background popped out. If you've got a real fussy background all your appliqué, if it's not spaced out is lost and that's where you put the work.

EW: Well, this worked out very well.

JC: So it took a while to do around it, but that finally got in there. It's too pretty to go on a bed right now. Now that I no longer have cats, it may end up on a bed.

EW: Your cat liked the bed?

JC: Until this last year I had two cats and before that we had dog and cat mixture.

EW: So you've always about not getting hair on the quilts that you make?

JC: One of them always sleeps on a bed.

EW: What do you think that someone looking at this quilt might think of you as a quiltmaker?

JC: I don't know, that I like color. I like contrast, really.

EW: And so the way you've been using this quilt right now is you've just had it in storage and you take it out whenever you want to look at it, or show it to people who do interviews.

JC: To show it to people.

EW: And what are your plans, then, for this quilt?

JC: When I'm getting ready to leave this world, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren and my children each can take a pick. If they don't want to care for it as a keepsake I want them to sell it. They will enjoy the money and whoever's willing to pay a decent price for a quilt will take care of it.

EW: That's a good theory. When did you start thinking about quilting? When did you get interested in quilting?

JC: When I was very little I got a doll bed and my grandmother gave me some blocks. I never put the blocks together but I still remember the blocks.

EW: How old were you then?

JC: Five. It was a Christmas present. I played with those blocks and tried to arrange them. I never did put them together because I didn't like the colors. And I still don't think I would like the colors. [both laugh.]

EW: So you've already got some design ideas as a five-year-old, when did you really start putting quilts together?

JC: I put the first one together over a period of about three years, from scraps, cut into squares and sewn together. I used a comforter, one of those Dacron/nylon comforters, as a batting because the top had all worn out. My kids slept under that quilt, because it was a full size. They slept under that quilt and when it fell apart, the cover tore up, I patched it, and I patched it and then they used it in the yard and then my grandchildren used it and my daughter left it in her basement and it was ugly. It weighed a ton by that time and her basement went under water. And when she found the quilt it was a mildew soggy wet mess. It went to the garbage pail. And I learned a lot from that. Cut accurately, for one thing. Know where you are going when you start because, otherwise, when you have to add to it, you've got all of one color on one side and your quilt isn't balance.

EW: So your color wouldn't balance?

JC: Right.

EW: So this quilt was your own design?

JC: It was just squares.

EW: And you just put it together like you were doing when you were five?

JC: Right.

EW: Was this a tied quilt?

JC: No, I quilted it.

EW: You quilted it. Very good.

JC: Well, it wasn't hard because the batting was all quilted before before I started.

EW: And your children loved having it for all that time.

JC: Yes. They all used it. It went outdoors. It went to the beach. It padded furniture and it wouldn't wear out.

EW: Wonderful. Especially when mom was around to patch it.

JC: The next one had a little better design. It was equilateral triangles, sewn into a star. And I learned to plan a little bit. Triangles aren't easy to match up. And if you put all those little stars together then you've got to fill in around them with curvy pieces. And I really didn't know how to do it, but I got it done.

EW: It was a learning experience for you.

JC: The next one was--oh, my mother had all these old bowling shirts of my stepfather's, of great big embroidered turkeys. So I made a quilt around those turkeys. They liked that one, too.

EW: Do you still have that one?

JC: I can't have. I don't know where it would have gone. That one probably was a dog's bed or something. That's all it was worth.

EW: Did you have teachers that taught you to quilt or did you learn this all by yourself?

JC: Books.

EW: Books, okay.

JC: Every quilting magazine you buy, almost, tells you how to do it and that's where I learned how to draw. Nothing was ever made the size I wanted.

EW: Of course.

JC: And they were either too narrow, were too short, so I got graph paper. You really learn a lot when you are drawing on graph paper, how to design it, how to put it together. After that I used the book patterns and just changed them to suit. And then I started watching "Simply Quilts." I think all the quilts I saved are the ones I made after I retired. I'm not sure if there's any before. There might be.

EW: How many quilts do you suppose you have?

JC: In my house? Oh, let's see. My daughter just returned a bunch of them. She got rid of her twin beds, so I think I got three there and there must be three or four in the guest room. One poor, pitiful thing in my room, one I made before the cat started throwing up. And there's about twelve in the closet.

EW: So it looks like you've got close to twenty, anyway.

JC: It must be.

EW: Sounds like a good project. How much time do you spend quilting, a week?

JC: Usually, oh, about two hours an evening, quilting. But putting them together, as much time as I can find.

EW: Maybe you can think back, beyond the time that you were a five-year-old. Can you remember your first quilt memory?

JC: The only thing I remember is the Christmas catalogues we used to get. And you'd look through and see the pictures of all the stuff available and picking out quilts. Hawaiian quilts were so pretty in those books. I always wanted one.

EW: Did you ever make one?

JC: I have it half done. That's one of my projects when I clean out. I don't know exactly where it is, but I'm on the outside border. So it'll get there eventually.

EW: Progress is a good thing. Are there any other quiltmakers in your family?

JC: My mother, after she retired, quilted some, but hers was she put the tops together piece by piece and attached them onto quilted backgrounds. Her sisters did the same thing.

EW: That's interesting. I never thought of that.

JC: They didn't quilt. They just pieced.

EW: Well, that sounds like a fun project, too. Of course you've got friends that quilt.

JC: Oh, yes.

EW: Lots of friends. And how does quilting impact your family or when you had children at home, how did it impact your family?

JC: I don't think it did much. It just kept me out of their hair, I think. They didn't have to worry about keeping me occupied because when I didn't have anything else to do I'd quilt.

EW: Have you ever used quilting to get through a difficult time?

JC: Frequently.

EW: How does that work for you?

JC: I made a lovely quilt when my father died. It gives you something to do. Keeps your fingers occupied. Then you start remembering all the good stuff. That's what I spent yesterday, all day, doing. And it does keep you--

EW: It's soothing?

JC: It's soothing. Hand quilting is very relaxing. I know it's a matter of time if you've got two or three children, a full-time job, you don't really have time, but if you have time to sit down, even for 20 minutes. The tricky part is I'm learning to quilt in a recliner. [both laugh.]

EW: Good luck with that.

JC: It's kind of hard to sit there for as long as I did before, in that position, but my ankles don't swell up as fast.

EW: That's a good idea. Do you have a hoop, then, that you use?

JC: Right. I've always used a hoop. I like the oval one.

EW: So you don't have a big rack that you put your quilt on.

JC: Nope. I've tried the big plastic ones.

EW: I know which ones you mean, the square ones.

JC: And the chair you have to sit in to reach is so uncomfortable. It's more of a challenge than it is a--

EW: So the hoop really works best for you?

JC: It works. You can relax and sit comfortably.

EW: Have you ever had an amusing experience connected with your quilts?

JC: Well, when we had dogs and cats there was usually one either laying on the floor with a quilt on the floor underneath my feet or I've had to push the cat off the top of the hoop. [both laugh.] She used to get down underneath it on my lap.

EW: That would be cozy, wouldn't it?

JC: Yes, it was.

EW: And what do you find especially pleasing about quiltmaking?

JC: Relaxing. Oh, you think about it after you start losing relatives and have to go and clean their houses out. What do you do with the stuff hanging on their walls. It's kind of old and shabby. You pitch it. Same way with their clothing. But if you found a lovely quilt on the bed you certainly would keep it. I got to thinking about it. Why spend all that time doing a picture that the kids are going to throw in the garbage can? They'll take the quilt home.

EW: Good thinking.

JC: The really shabby ones they'll use as outdoor furniture wrappers and all that stuff, but the good ones they might actually--

EW: Enjoy and take care of?

JC: Right.

EW: Are there any aspects of quilting that you don't enjoy?

JC: I don't really enjoy machine quilting. I think it's gorgeous. I think some people do a fantastic job. Wanda Warner is really talented. And some of them that do the big, long-arm ones can do a fantastic job. But, I don't like to do it.

EW: That's just not your thing?

JC: No, it's not.

EW: Okay. What art or quilt groups do you belong to.

JC: Well, I have one that's supposed to meet on Wednesday mornings and quilt, and one that meets on Friday mornings. And some other friends and I get together every couple of weeks.

EW: Not a formal--

JC: Right. We bring whatever project we can work on. And I have another lady that, she's very interested in quilting, so I'm giving her things, as I go along, that I really don't need or want to keep around anymore. I wish my daughters would learn, but they evidently won't, at least not yet.

EW: Maybe when they retire.

JC: I don't know. They might.

EW: What about advances in technology that have happened through the years? Are there any that have been very helpful for you?

JC: Oh, when I do quilt I like using that nice cotton batting that everything sticks in place for you. That's fantastic. I like polyester for hand quilting but now you don't have to--it used to be you had to be so careful because it would thin out. Now it's all beautiful. That really makes it nice. My newest sewing machine has got a bigger hole, besides the needle-down position and then the foot pops up when the needle's down just enough to hold it. The needle holds it and the foot pops up so you can slide something else in there with it. Those things make it a lot easier. And then lighting is better now. I love the books in color.

EW: Yes. Do you have a favorite technique?

JC: No. I love appliqué. I thought, years ago, when I first really started, anybody would be crazy to sit there--I wish I had some with me now--but now I really enjoy appliqué. Once you get enough quilts for your whole house, all of your relatives are satisfied, then you start playing with things that take more time and appliqué really grows on you. It certainly does.

EW: Are you particular about the materials that you use?

JC: I try and use cotton, but I'll use anything that I like the color. If I can't find the right color--

EW: You might use a poly-cotton combination?

JC: Right.

EW: And for batting, do you really prefer cotton or does it matter now?

JC: I like the polyester for hand quilting but the cotton is so much easier to machine quilt.

EW: Because it stays put?

JC: It stays put better. That's the big thing. And as you, when you slow before you--it stays.

EW: The fabrics seem to grip each other.

JC: They grip. So.

EW: Let's talk about where you create. Do you have a studio or sewing room?

JC: I have a sewing room, but it's more like a sewing dungeon [laughs.] or cage. It's just where everything is crammed in and there's a little space. I like sewing in the summer time, on the porch where you can see outdoors, watch deer, turkeys, all the different birds.

EW: Do you machine piece?

JC: Definitely. That one speaker we had, she never thought of machine piecing? I never thought of hand piecing. [laughs.] I learned to use my mother's Featherweight when I was like nine years old. She showed me how, told me where it was kept. Go for it, girl. And I have used a sewing machine ever since. I taught my oldest granddaughter when she was nine, to make a doll quilt on that same machine.

EW: That's cool. How do you balance--oh, before we go away from that other question--do you use a design wall?

JC: I have one but it got sidetracked. Mostly I see what I want to do. When I'm ready to put the blocks together I spread them on the floor in the living room and then I have my husband tell me what should go where because there's things you miss when you look at it.

EW: And he sees it with a fresh eye?

JC: Right. And if it's unbalanced, he'll tell me how to do it. So I always like a second opinion. But most of my quilts are done in blocks that can be rearranged. So it's not a--there's too many patterns.

EW: There is that.

JC: --to have to start over fresh and I thought a long time ago that there's so many really talented people who know how, and there's only so many ways you can put squares together, that most of them just look at books and let them do the thinking. You waste an awfully lot of time rearranging stuff.

EW: Yes, and then you choose your own colors?

JC: That's why I never did the Watercolor--

EW: Ah, yes.

JC: I have six shoe boxes full of little squares ready for watercolor piecing that will never be.

EW: Well, that sounds like another creative possibility.

JC: Yes, but I'm not going to do it.

EW: How do you balance your time?

JC: Well, it's lots easier if you don't--my husband sits and watches the same shows all day long and I just hide out and sew. I make quilt tops for Charitable Union. They'll take everything I can make. So, I hide away and do them.

EW: And then they do the piece--not the piecing, but--

JC: They layer it and they tie it, bind it and tie it and sell it, or whatever. I don't really care and I'm not keeping track.

EW: What do you think makes a great quilt?

JC: That one [refers to her quilt.] to most people, wouldn't think that was a great quilt because there's not enough contrast between dark and light.

EW: Oh, you think high contrast is important?

JC: There should be a little dab--what I don't like are the ones that look like they used every color there, only without the design.

EW: They look a little disorganized?

JC: They're totally unorganized and it looks like they took a whole box of brand new colors and used every one of them regardless of. It's just blobs of color and it--

EW: Doesn't make sense to you?

JC: Right. There's also the people who took one piece of fabric. They got another print that was the same colors, a couple of other fabrics that blend right in and then they spent all this time matching seams that you don't see.

EW: Ah.

JC: That they pick out some fancy pattern and piece it so nicely and until you really get looking you can't even tell what the pattern is. Because it all blends into one solid color practically.

EW: So you want to see a decisive pattern, and good contrast in the fabrics or colors that are chosen?

JC: Right.

EW: What do you think makes a quilt artistically powerful?

JC: I think, probably, the same stuff. That one, to me, [points to pictures on the wall.] is more interesting of the paintings there, because you can use your imagination a little bit. It looks like somebody put a little time and effort into it.

EW: Do you find that, when you look at an artistic quilt, that you want to have your own thoughts from what you see, or do you want everything spelled out for you?

JC: Well, I have a painting at home that, to me, looks like waves, the water at Lake Michigan. I like that, but I don't like the one where they take and put a square of color, you know that one, and he sells for thousands, millions.

EW: Yes, well, to each his own.

JC: I don't see anything in squares of color unless it's going somewhere.

EW: What do you think makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection?

JC: Ah, the person who had it, the variety in it, the care. Well, I see a lot of quilts when I go to shows that I really like and those I would like seeing in a museum. And then there are some of these art quilts that I wouldn't give you a--they would look like rags to wipe up after--

EW: Oh, my goodness.

JC: They are.

EW: So you really favor the traditional designs.

JC: Right. I like to see how they put them together differently. I like to see how they used different colors.

EW: What do you think makes a great quiltmaker?

JC: Patience. The willingness to rip out.

EW: Correct?

JC: And start over places.

EW: Is there anyone whose works you are especially attracted to?

JC: Like I said, Wanda Warner's. I like Joyce Rupp's. Sharon, I've forgotten her last name, Juarez, did beautiful machine quilting. She has some lovely quilts. I prefer 30's fabrics because I like the colors and people who use them. I've seen a lot of fantastic quilts. The Baltimore Album quilts I think are gorgeous.

EW: Are there any artists that have influenced you?

JC: Not that I can think of. Jinny Beyers does fantastic stuff.

EW: Yes, she does.

JC: Our own quilt show, some of them, Beth Ferrier. I made one of her quilts. I really liked it. She is a fantastic teacher. Beth Howard, she has taught me more and so has Rosemary Kimball, than most of the other people I know of. I like the lady who does the letters.

EW: Oh, yes. I can't recall her name.

JC: Mary Lou--I don't know what her last name--

EW: Was it Hollenbeck?

JC: Sounds like it.

EW: We'll have to look that up.

JC: How do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting?

EW: After trying machine quilting I think that the machine quilters really have to have a lot of patience and skill and talent and some of them are fantastic. They can do things that hand quilters can't. But, for me I prefer hand quilting. There are some absolutely fabulous hand quilters that the ordinary person couldn't machine quilt as good as the hand quilter. But for the great ones, like Sharon was. There is one from Kalamazoo, Jamie--it's a man, but I can't think of his last name. He does absolutely stunning machine quilting. At, I think it was at last year's show, Judy Allen's, the one that was unfinished, oh, it was done, I think she said, by the lady in Charlotte [Michigan.]. She is going to be very, very good. She is now, even. So there are some that--

EW: Was that Jamie Wallen?

JC: That's who.

EW: How do you think your quilts reflect your community?

JC: I have no idea.

EW: What do you think about the importance of quilts in American life?

JC: I think they are very important. The give a sense of continuity is the word, especially the ones that have been handed down from generation to generation. There is something special about those. And the earliest ones that are still alive in the museums are the ones I really enjoy seeing. Because they are so old and how many other things--? Quilts aren't as fragile as glassware. They're not nearly as fragile as some of the furniture and they don't get as beat-up looking if they're taken care of as the furniture. So, it's something that shows what women did. So, I think it's important to keep them.

EW: There's a historical significance, then?

JC: Right.

EW: What do you think about any special meaning for women in American history?

JC: I think we were fortunate. We got the right, and we should have the right to be totally equal. And when you look back in history, American women were taught to defend themselves at a very early age, because if they're alone, it's up to them to protect the children.

EW: So, you're thinking of women living out on the prairie.

JC: Right. They had to learn how to do, because there couldn't always be somebody around to do for them. And the pampered ones in cities, with money, shouldn't really represent American women, because ours was--men might have gone exploring, but they didn't go settling without their wives and children and their wives were the ones who had to take care of things.

EW: How many ways do you think quilts can be used?

JC: Besides keeping warm, they ease you. I think there is a lot of love put into them even if there's no person in, you're not feeling, because of how you feel about what you're doing. And it's usually comforting. Most people who aren't happy will cuddle under a quilt and be a lot happier than with a blanket, especially if the power goes out.

EW: As it does occasionally here. How do you think that quilts should be preserved?

JC: By not using them for the dog's bed or like I found one of mine, out in the garage where my son left it wrapping furniture as he moved.

EW: Whoops.

JC: Fortunately it wasn't one of the better ones. That's why I came up with the idea, you sell them. The people who spent money buying them will take care of them.

EW: That sounds very sensible. When you put money into something it, sometimes, makes you take care of things.

JC: If it's something Mom did on her day off because she didn't have anything else to do you don't treasure it.

EW: Now, what do you think is the biggest challenge for quiltmakers today?

JC: Finding time. The younger ones, I don't know how they make it. You have a job, kids, home, try and have friends and still have time to do, I think I'd go bananas.

EW: Well, it's nice that we can arrange our time when we retire, to suit ourselves. This reaches the end of our questions, now. Is there anything that you would like to say?

JC; Not that I can think of. I think that you have covered most of my thoughts. [added later: One of the nicest things about quilting is you don't have to be a fantastic piecer. Some of the prettiest quilts are just nine-patches.]

EW: We appreciate, very much, your taking the time to do this interview for us and I'm sure people will enjoy reading about it.

JC: I hope so.

EW: This concludes our interview and the time is 11:05 a.m.


“Jean Champagne,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 27, 2024,