Shirley Johnston Shelly




Shirley Johnston Shelly


Shirley Johnston Shelly begins by sharing her childhood, education, and career background. Shelly says the first time she saw quilting was when she was in high school. Her friend's mother had made a quilt for her twin beds that were in patchwork style with Nine Patch at the bottom. Shelly was inspired by the beauty of the quilts and eventually had worn them out. Once she retired, she got involved with the Cardinal Quilters. She mentions that quilting gave her a hobby, and she learned how to quilt from meetings and workshops from the guild.

Shelly describes the quilt she has brought to the interview, a Log Cabin-designed wall hanging with autumn-like colors. The quilt is strip quilted and strip pieced. A few years later, Shelly became a bobbin lace maker and took classes at a church. Once she learned how to make lace, she added strips of plain Torchon lace to the quilt. Her quilt has been shown in quilt shows. Shelly talks about others' quilts she has bought from quilt shows and auctions.

Shelly was vice president of Cardinal Quilters twice, and then president for two terms. She says that people that completed projects were given a moon or star as motivation for people to quilt. She taught Crumb Piecing and make a basket. She was a historian for the Virginia Quilt Documentation Research Project and had to document all quilts she could find in Virginia. She would train others on how to document quilts as well, which included photography, identification, and description. She found quilts from the Civil War and possibly the Revolutionary War period.




Quilts in interior decoration
Strip quilting
Log cabin quilts
Virginia Quilt Museum
Quiltmaker's club
Quilts--United States--History--20th century.


Shirley Johnston Shelly


Evelyn Salinger

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Nancy O'Bryant Puentes


Alexandria, Virginia

Interview indexer

Interview indexed by Ta'mya Ross with the support of the Virginia Quilt Museum


Evelyn Salinger


Evelyn Salinger (ES): Today is February 13, 2004. We are conducting an interview with Shirley Johnston Shelley at 1:15, at the Trinity United Methodist Church, in Alexandria, Virginia. Evelyn Salinger is the interviewer and Ruth Duncan is the scribe. The tape is number 22302.011. Welcome, Shirley.

Shirley Shelley: (SS): Thank you.

ES: Nice of you to come today and be documented. We would like to know first of all, from where you have come.

SS: Well, I was born in Ohio--Cleveland, Ohio. And then we moved to Philadelphia, from there we moved to Westchester County, [New York.] from there we moved to Connecticut. So I was in a girls' school in Westport, Connecticut and talked my parents into letting me go to the public high school which I loved. So I graduated from Staples, in Westport, Connecticut.

Ruth Duncan (RD): Oh. You were rivals of ours. [Ruth went to Greenwich (Connecticut) High School.]

SS: And then I left home at seventeen to go to college and I went to Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg [VA.] for two years. And then I transferred to the University of Michigan.

ES: And what was your major there?

SS: Music.

ES: And what form of music?

SS: I was majoring in voice and also music education, and art was the second major. So I stayed there, got married the day I graduated, and then went on and got my master's degree, started teaching and then we left that area and we moved to what was called East Detroit--Roseville, Michigan. And so I taught there for three years.

ES: Now this was what level of teaching, high school or elementary--

SS: No, I was supervising grades kindergarten through eighth grade and then I did all the choral work and theory in the high school. So I was there for three years. We left there and we went to Newaygo, Michigan, which of course is north of Grand Rapids, Michigan. My husband had a position up there but we only stayed there for two years and then he was offered a position as an instrumentalist in the Baltimore public schools. So we moved to Baltimore.

ES: And what year was that approximately?

SS: 1949. So then I did not teach. I had a child, a little boy, [Bruce.] and so I had decided I did not want a career. [with a second son, Scott.] [Shirley discusses how she then taught at Maryvale Trinity College Preparatory School; then as a music specialist with the Baltimore Public Schools during which her third son, Gordon, was born; and then accepted a position as professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, where she remained for 22 years.]

ES: Terrific.

SS: My children all graduated from universities. And I am now Professor Emeritus.

ES: Very good. Where did not get when you received your PhD.

SS: I didn't receive my PhD. What happened is at the University of Maryland I was taking doctoral courses, which I had taken some before, at Michigan. But because I was on the professorial rank, you see, at which they hired me, you cannot get your doctorate at that University. You can go back and be an instructor but I was supporting three boys and myself and I couldn't afford it.

ES: Okay.

SS: But what's interesting is I was [also.] a member of the graduate school, and I was teaching graduate students. And so when I retired in '86, I did not do anything about it. And a few years ago, one administrator I had known, got a hold of me and said, 'Look, you could get Professor Emeritus with your history.' And so I put together my Vita, which ended up 17 pages [laughter.] [documenting all my accomplishments, which passed through the proper channels and I was granted Professor Emeritus status.]

ES: Wonderful. Congratulations.

SS: Thank you. I look back now. I wonder how I did it.

SS: What happened was, my boys needed an image, some kind of a man image. I had one brother and he lived in Alexandria. My mother had died when she was sixty. My Father died a few years later. So I again tore up roots, where I was living, moved to Alexandria.

ES: You've come a long way on your own.

SS: Oh, yes. I've got three wonderful sons.

ES: And now some grandchildren as well?

SS: Yes. And now, as I said, one of the quilts I made, in fact I've made several baby quilts, and I thought, oh well, I'll just make them for friends. Right. But there's one I hung on to. And that's the one I showed you. And my youngest son--it's the first time I've had any one of my children living that close to me here in Alexandria. And so my youngest son has had two little girls. [Kayle and Brittany, ages 5 and 3.]

ES: Would you tell us when you first got interested in quilting?

SS: Well, the first time I saw quilting was years and years ago when I was in high school. I came home one day and a friend and my mother were working on a quilt. And I had a room in the house on the North side of the house which had twin beds. And she made quilts for my twin beds. And I think back, they were little patchwork, you know the squares, Nine Patch at the bottom, in a different design I think. I thought, 'Gee they're pretty and they look pretty on the bed.' The beds were [antique.] Jenny Linds so they really went with the beds. Then they made one for my brother, who had his rooms upstairs in the house. And I never thought much about it. And I wore the quilts out, completely wore them out. So that was my first introduction. But from then on there was nothing. Then I retired, as I said, in '86. And my son, my middle son, was doing some work for Beth Ford. He has his own contracting business. He refurbishes and [restores homes.] So he got talking to her and he said, 'You know my mom is very artistic. And she loves to work with fabrics.' And so Beth said to him, 'Why doesn't she come to our Christmas party?' The Christmas party was at Fran Ross' house, Joan Knight's mother's house. And I can't remember if it was '87 or what, but it was around that period. And so I went to the party. And that's how I got started with Cardinal Quilters. Plus my sister-in-law, who still lived here, was one of the founders of Cardinal Quilters, Jane Johnston.

ES: Uh-huh.

SS: So that's how I got into it.

ES: Okay.

SS: And it was a wonderful outlet for me because it gave me a hobby--I mean, I have enough hobbies--but this particularly was, because I love to work with fabrics. And that's how I got into it.

ES: Good. Did you take lessons at the beginning, or just go to meetings and picked up things?

SS: I just went to meetings and workshops, because many of the guilds had workshops. [After.] I joined Cardinal Quilters, we started a group called Hayfield Quilters, which had been very small and very, kind of shaky. And Joan Knight, I got to know her very well. So then, later on they started the VCQ, the Virginian Consortium of Quilters. So then we started to travel to [their workshops all over the state.] So that's how I learned. By trial and error. [laughter.]

ES: Very good. Well, you've brought a piece here today. Maybe you would discuss with us the piece that you brought.

SS: Well, this is a wall hanging. And it's in autumn colors.. It's a Log Cabin design. But to me it was a little unusual in the sense that I suddenly began to realize with the Log Cabin, you can change it into so many various ways. And with this particular one, I suddenly hit the idea of opposites. So I tried to design the wall hanging so that it's opposites all the way through. And then of course, the red center -- And I tied it which is a little bit different but because it's all strip quilted, strip pieced, rather, so then I did not have to worry [that the fabric would shift.] So I just put a back on it and then bound it. But I tied it and I had so much fun doing this. Then I realized I wanted to do something different that I had never done in a quilt. And a few years ago, I became a bobbin lace maker. They started these classes at our church, the Westminster Presbyterian Church. And it's interesting because I started to learn how to make lace. And we traveled to Europe, we traveled to Belgium, to Holland, to England, and we studied making lace. So what happened is, I decided that's what this wall hanging needed. And so throughout you'll see strips of lace.

ES: Very nice. And they fit in with the lights in general because of the cream color.

SS: Right.

ES: They're lovely. It's a sampler, more or less of laces.

SS: Yes. Right.

RD: Did you make the lace?

SS: No. I only made this one. [pointing to a particular one.] This is the plain Torchon lace. That's the first lace you learn. The rest were purchased. They could be handmade. Some are, some are not.

ES: Do you have a date for this?

SS: Unfortunately, this was at the time when we didn't know enough to put the date on things. Well it has to be made in the late 80's. No, that's just my name. It's been used. It's been shown in some quilt shows.

ES: Tell us about quilt shows. Have you won some prizes at some shows?

SS: No. Not at quilt shows.

ES: Okay.

SS: I have displayed quilts because of my collection. I have twenty-eight tops and quilts.

ES: Oh, my.

SS: In my collection.

ES: From where did you get those?

SS: Well, I got quite a few of them. My first one came from Indiana, at Shipshewana which is a famous place for fabrics. The Mennonites. Gorgeous fabrics. And a lot of quilt shows. And I was at one of the auctions and the sales that they have. I saw this quilt and I just fell in love with it. It is what I call my "Popcorn Quilt." It has been shown in various quilt shows. And what happened is, it was tied with embroidery, like wool, and consequently it has been washed so much that it's puffy. So that's why I call it the "Popcorn Quilt."

ES: Uh-hum.

SS: And I paid twenty-five dollars for it. And I adore it. And it's got all blues and reds. I should have brought it. All different colors. And what it is. It's what they called the 'hired man's quilt--'that slept in the barn. And that was his quilt.

ES: Uh-huh. I see.

SS: So I had the history on it.

ES: And what are some of the other quilts that you purchased?

SS: I purchased a Wedding Ring Quilt from the maker who lived with two daughters in Alexandria. The maker and one daughter decided to move back to Texas and sold the Mother's quilts including the Wedding Ring. It has been shown in two or three quilt shows including the Virginia Quilt Museum. It is made of feed sacks with a gold background indicating it was made for a golden wedding anniversary. Another favorite quilt is my Hat Band Quilt. It is made of silk pieces left over from the hat bands made for the inside of hats. The hats were made in the well-known hat factory in Danbury, Connecticut, which made President Lincoln's hat that he wore when he delivered his Gettysburg address. The factory women would bring home little pieces of the silk bands and make them into a Log Cabin pattern. The quilt is over one hundred thirty years old. I put a complete cotton back on it because it is all silk and I was afraid it would rot. So it has hung in my house for many years, but finally I took it down. Previously, I would take it down every three months so it could rest. But it is also interesting that a dear friend up in Connecticut, who was a professor at what is now Danbury University, [Western Conn. State Univ., Danbury.] had given it to me, because one part of it was faded. She had had it in a solarium in her house and the sun had faded a portion of the quilt. And so she gave it to a dear friend of mine to give to me and said, 'Tell Shirley to cut the faded section out and maybe she can save the rest.' Well, I was not about to cut it. Another friend sent me just two months ago, the picture of them demolishing the factory. After all these years, the factory is gone. It is still one of my favorite quilts and has been shown in several quilt shows including the Sully Plantation Show.

ES: Ah.

SS: So it's quite a story.

ES: It certainly is.

SS: There were originally two of them the same. But the other one was up in the attic and it just deteriorated. Other quilts: I have Pointed Star. I also have one that was made in the Territory with onion skin dyes to make the color.

ES: The Territory meaning the Northwest?

SS: Ah. I know I shouldn't get going on this. The husband was the [U.S.] Marshal--out West, I've forgotten which territory it was.

ES: That's okay.

SS: I' m trying to think what other quilts I have. I just started collecting them because again the fabric, the design just fascinated me.

ES: Uh-huh.

SS: I have several of them from the early twenties, thirties.

ES: As to your own quilting, what are your favorite techniques, like piecing or appliqué?

SS: Appliqué. I am not so good at that. I just patched my little five-year-old's Levis with a strawberry, and I thought, what is that stuff that we use that you iron on?

RD: Wonder Under.

SS: Wonder Under. And I could not remember where it was. And I could not remember if I had any, so I had to do it by hand. Now, as a child I did embroidery. And I thought, 'Your grandmother would have hysterics if she saw this kind of sewing that you are doing on this strawberry.' But I guess, appliqué, I like it, but I am not as good at hand work. I love to piece. As I say, I like more to work with color and make my own designs, maybe, like a scene.

ES: And have you found some particular scenes that you enjoy?

SS: Yes. Here's--[pointing to a small picture wall hanging.] I've done one that's a picture out of my own mind. As always, there's a church somewhere in the picture, when I do it.

ES: Do you have some strong affiliation with some churches here?

SS: Oh, yes. I am a lay leader. I am an elder. And I direct a hand bell choir. I am on the worship committee and I chair the music committee and we plan all the concerts.

ES: That's a lot.

SS: Yes. I don't know why, but that's just the way it is. So another one I like to do is the Bible stories. And we have what we call [M. and M.] week [music and more.] for the children in the spring, around June, and [last year.] they were studying 'Daniel and the Lion's Den.' And I made this one for them [pointing to the piece.] in the folk art form.

ES: It's a mixture of wools and cottons.

SS: And everything else. They're different fabrics.

ES: That's very nice. Do they hang that at church?

SS: Well, they hung it for the children, while they were studying the story.

ES: That's very nice. I like the robe especially, it's almost a robe of many colors, I know that's the wrong story but--

SS: You know, people say they go out and buy fabric to do this, well, I think one of the greatest things about quilting is the companionship of going with friends to buy fabrics. [laughs.] And whether you use it or not, that's not important. It's the enjoyment of being with friends. And I had to laugh -- because Joan Knight was very good at always remembering what you bought or what she bought. And I would see something. I'd say, 'I gotta have that.' But she says, 'You already have that.' [laughs.] So, any way, that's a great enjoyment. So, I like to do pictures, or something with meaning. I like to do strip quilting. I think one of my favorite patterns is the Nine Patch.

ES: Um.

SS: I think that's one of the greatest. I have made clothing. I made a jacket but you'll laugh at this because I used a bed pad for the lining.

ES: Oh, yes.

SS: [laughs.] And it's so stiff.

RD: Oh my goodness.

SS: The sleeves and everything. It's so stiff. I am going to have to wash it 10 times to get it soft. But that was one thing I made that was wearable.

ES: Do you do things with the machine much?

SS: Oh, yes. I use the machine a lot. Now I have not done machine quilting. I took a couple of classes in it. But what happened is, I was kind of into the swing of it and in 1999 I went to Australia. And unfortunately, I came back and I had a virus. I got what they call the Guillaume Barré Syndrome.

ES: Oh, yes, I remember that.

SS: And I was terribly ill for almost a year. And so consequently, my quilting, my lace making, and everything has kind of suffered for it.

ES: Uh-huh.

SS: Plus I got too involved in church.

RD: But you made an excellent recovery from the disease.

SS: Oh, yes. I am very fortunate. The only problem I have is my balance is not as great as it could be. I have to watch going down steps. I'm fine going up, but not coming down, and heights. So I was very lucky [and truly blessed.].

ES: Oh, yes.

SS: Because six per cent die and don't make it. So I was fortunate.

ES: Would you tell us about your positions at Cardinal Quilters as officer?

SS: Well, I was vice-president twice.

ES: And those are two-year terms.

SS: Yes. And then I was president for two terms. And also I did the same thing in Hayfield. I was president there. I can't remember, but I started the project, [Moon and Stars.]. I don't remember whether we did that at Cardinals, but we did up at Hayfield. It was fun. You know, for people that completed certain projects they were given a little moon or star, and it kind of motivated people to really get going on doing things. You know how we all have these projects lying around, it's terrible. But it was an incentive. So that is one of the things I did. And then with Virginia Consortium of Quilters I taught for them.

ES: What did you teach?

SS: The last one I taught was Crumb Piecing. And we made a basket and that was fun.

ES: And were there some other projects you would describe that you have done in the quilt field?

SS: Oh, like the documentation?

ES: Yeah.

SS: I was the historian for the Virginia Quilt Documentation Research Project in which we were to document all the quilts we could find in Virginia. They did not necessarily have to be made in Virginia but they could live in Virginia. In other words, people bought them some place else, or they inherited them from somebody, but they were housed and lived in Virginia. So Linda Freeman and I did most of the driving for Joan Knight who lived here in Alexandria. Linda lived in Stafford at that time. And we drove all over the state. And what we did was, we would go into a town, and quilters in that area would come in a group, and we would train them how to document a quilt.

ES: Uh-huh.

SS: Now it's quite tedious from the standpoint that the quilt is photographed and completely measured. We try to identify, of course, what the pattern is. Then we try to describe the colors. [I asked about the history of the quilt and recorded it.]

ES: I see.

SS: And one of the most interesting ones consisted of a narrow quilt. I thought it wasn't a child's quilt. But it was narrow. And we found out that it was a quilt that had been made for-- like in the temporary hospitals during the Civil War for soldiers, and all they had were the cots to put them on. So that's why the quilts were made the size they were.

ES: Oh.

SS: We also found another quilt which the person said, came from the Revolutionary War period. But we were not ever completely convinced that this was true. It could have been but we just could not prove it. So, the documentation is what we did. We did it for every quilt. Then they were given a little plaque, a muslin plaque, with the number et cetera. And it was registered as being documented in the state of Virginia. Now you understand, at this time many of the states were doing this. This was the highlight of the documentation period.

ES: What years, more or less, were you doing this? I am not aware of this documentation period.

SS: [The early 1990's. During a four year period we traveled over 4000 miles and documented approximately 3600 quilts.] Because I retired in '86, got into quilting around '87. But you know, we would go to meetings and [attended various workshops and purchased many book sources on quilt periods and patterns. We also gave a demonstration at the Smithsonian.]

[At one meeting.] North Carolina came in with a beautiful book. Gorgeous book. Already completely done. With our book, it has never been written. And we looked into it. I remember I drove down to the University of Virginia to their University press, and they were very much interested. And of course they came back and wanted to know about how many minorities were involved and all this information which was extremely difficult to document because we did not find a lot of quilts done by minorities. So that never materialized. And I understand now that there is a group that is going to try and write the book.

ES: Uh-huh.

SS: But those of us, who were actually part of it, as far as I know, have not been asked to participate.

ES: Do you do other crafts besides quilting at this point?

SS: As I say, lace making.

ES: Oh, yes of course. Sorry.

SS: That's all right because this is bobbin lace. It's not crochet. It's not needle lace. It's bobbin lace whereby you throw the bobbins. [Shirley describes lace making and her trip to Belgium.] Then we went to England, twice. And then we went to Holland and studied. So it has been a wonderful thing.

Now you asked me what I am doing, at this point. Well, I have gotten so involved in the church at this moment because we've lost our senior pastor, we lost our director of music ministry, and we lost an associate pastor. So, consequently, we have an interim pastor and we have an interim director of music. Since April, I've been trying to get things straightened out. And it has taken a tremendous amount of time, plus the worship committee. Of course worship and music, as you all know, are two of the, as they say, 'bear committees' of the church [laughs.] and they take a tremendous amount of time.

ES: You are certainly devoting a lot of time to that.

SS: Right.

ES: A couple of general questions--

SS: I also like to make cards, I meant to tell you.

ES: Make what?

SS: Cards.

ES: What kind of cards?

SS: Well. I get dried flowers.

ES: Oh, that kind. Greeting cards.

SS: Yeah. And I've tried it with fabric. I love to do it with fabric. That's a wonderful way to use scraps.

ES: Yes.

SS: You can get blank cards at Pearl's or something.

ES: I am reminded of Kent Leathers' cards, when she did them. [Kent was a longtime member of Cardinal Quilters. She passed away in 2002.]

SS: See, Kent and I did them together.

ES: There was beautiful ribbon embroidery, what do they call it?

SS: Oh no, that's different. She did silk ribbon embroidery. We did that, too. [but Kent was far advanced.] So that's my problem. I have too many hobbies.

ES: Do you consider yourself a finisher, in general, or not a finisher of projects?

SS: Once I get going on a project, I'll finish it. But I'm like everybody else, that I have a lot of projects that are not finished. And I don't think I ever will. And there is something about it that it just doesn't hold the interest for me that it did. I have a chest of drawers filled with them. [many from workshop classes.] And that's another thing. I think it is so wonderful when we have these auctions. [usually annually at Cardinal Quilters' meetings.]

ES: Uh-huh.

SS: That if the other quilt groups are interested. Have auctions, they're wonderful. And you can move things fast. Of course, we end up buying each others' stuff. But that's what makes for the fun.

ES: And we do it for pennies.

SS: And we do it for pennies. [laughs.] And we have a great time. One of the things I think is so great about quilting is, you have a comradery. Like I said before, buying fabric.

ES: Yes. Right.

SS: But I've kind of slowed down on that. I kind of walk past the fabric store. Plus, look at number of stores that have gone out of business. Can you remember? I'm sure you do, like me, when quilting started coming in [again.]. All of a sudden quilting is becoming something great. And it seems to be waning again. I may be wrong. It's like line dancing. I love to line dance. Now it's hard to find a place to line dance.

ES: Yes. Well, things come and go in waves.

SS: Yes. Right.

ES: In everything we do.

SS: Right . Exactly.

ES: Is there anything else that we should be covering that you would be interested in telling about?

SS: I don't know. I think I've told you an awful lot.

ES: I think you have told us quite a bit. One of the things I do usually ask is, when you see a quilt, what makes it great? What do you really like in it? You have said some of it already, but if you would just conclude.

SS: Let me make an analogy here. When I go to the theater, I am impressed with the scenery as I am with the acting or the story. And they may be superb. But there is something about design--you must understand that I came from a home--my father was a well-known architect. My mother was a musician and dramatist. [and one of the first to make a knitted suit (jacket and skirt). And she made beautiful pewter jewelry and various pewter platters with designs in the center which I still have.] So I have been surrounded with art and color all my life. In fact I think I was weaned on charcoal and pastels. Okay. So when I look at a quilt, I look at it from the standpoint of what hits me first. What do I see first?

ES: Uh-huh.

SS: And of course, because of being a color person, I look at the color. Now it may be a snow scene. But I can still see the beauty of it. [in the gradation of colors.]

ES: Uh-huh.

SS: So then the next thing is design. Now I have great envy for people that can make a repetitive design and then make it so perfect. But I am also interested in seeing, like Linda's [Freeman.] mother, Elsie [Beach.] showed this morning. When I saw that fabric, that's the first thing I saw, 'Oh my God, what gorgeous fabric.' And you know when you've taken the same piece of fabric, and cut it a certain way, and you make different shapes out of it. I guess basically, what other things I did at the University. I taught courses in creativity for the graduate [master and.] doctoral students. How is one creative? How does one be creative? [I believe creative tendencies are nourished in early childhood when a child is encouraged to learn through 'play.']

ES: Yeah.

SS: And I think that's what I look at when I look at a quilt, I say, 'This person really has imagination, this person has really got a creative sense.'

ES: Very good. Okay. Well, thank you so much for your wonderful input today. [laughs.] We really enjoyed it. Thank you so much.

[tape ends.]

SS: [You are most welcome.]

Interview Keyword

Quilting community
Quilt design
Fabric choice
Quilt guilds
Fabric - Printed patchwork
Log Cabin (quilt pattern)
Strip/string piecing
Design walls
Quilt shows/exhibitions
Home sewing machines
Quiltmaking classes
Color theory

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