Joan Knight




Joan Knight


Joan Knight talks about the first full-size quilt she ever made, how it is used, and the reason she chose the log cabin design for her first-ever full-size quilt. She talks about her early quilting experiences with her family and how she continued quilting throughout college. Knight talks about the origins of the Virginia Quilt Museum and her role as its director. She talks about how women "sew their lives into their quilts." She talks about how the history of communities and regions can be seen in quilts. Knight talks about the exhibitions she has entered her quilts into and the prizes she has won. Knight talks about the importance of quilt preservation and the role of museums in preservation. She talks about how to get young people involved in quilting.




Arts and crafts
Quiltmakers--United States
Virginia Quilt Museum
Sewing machines
Machine quilting


Joan Knight


Le Rowell

Interview Date


Interview sponsor



Harrisonburg, Virginia

Interview indexer

JT Eissenberg


Le Rowell


Le Rowell (LR): This is Le Rowell. Today's date is November 11, 2001. It is 4:45 p.m. and I'm conducting an interview with Joan Knight for the Quilters' S.O.S.-Save Our Stories, a project of The Alliance for American Quilts, and we are in the Virginia Quilt Museum in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Joan, thank you consenting to have this interview today and I look forward to this. Tell me about the quilt that you brought.

Joan Knight (JK): Well, I brought my Log Cabin quilt because this was my first full size quilt that I ever made, and I made it for my husband because he's been really supportive of all my crafting and quilting and I thought he should have the first full size one. Another reason I made it was because of my grandmother, the person that really got me started in quilting and she made me a Log Cabin when I was about eleven years old, and I thought I would like to try that for my first quilt pattern.

LR: Do you use this quilt?

JK: Yes, we do use it.

LR: How?

JK: On the beds.

LR: On the beds. So let's start, tell me about your interest in quilting, how did you get started?

JK: Well the earliest I can remember is back when I was probably about nine or ten years old, fourth and fifth grade. I always loved history and I would read a lot of biographies and anything that had to do with the crafts they did back in old times, historical times, I was always trying to make something like that [laughs.]; so if it was a sampler I'd try to make my own sampler, and of course then they didn't have a lot of patterns and things available like they do now because that was not the modern thing to do I guess back then. And my grandmother, Willie Hitt, when I'd come to visit her, she was always piecing on her quilts and I would watch her, but I never did much more than watch her. It wasn't until I was in high school that I actually really got very interested in it because she would always ask me to cut her patterns for her. She was one of these quilters that would cut the pattern out of a piece of newspaper and keep putting it on her fabric and clipping around it. After a couple of weeks the little pattern piece had grown smaller and smaller, and she always said her blocks would be a little half inch off, bigger than the other or smaller than the other, but she always made them fit together and she'd always say if one looked a little bit fuller, 'I'll quilt it out, it'll quilt out,' and she always got 'em to fit together. So that's who really got me interested I think in trying to piece a quilt.

LR: Where was this?

JK: She was from Culpepper, Virginia, but then they moved when my grandfather went to work for the railroad to Alexandria [Virginia.]; when my father was in the Korean War, we lived with them and I was in first grade then and that's where I think I really--I can't remember specifically seeing her make the quilts but I know she had to be making them because that's when I started getting interested in it, you know when I was that young but never trying it until I was more like nine or ten. But seven or eight I remember her making things because when she asked me what kind of quilt I wanted, that was right after we left there and I was in elementary school, and by the time she got mine finished I was in about fourth or fifth grade.

LR: Then how did you continue with your quilting activities?

JK: Well, I always made do-- I like dolls [laughs.] and paper dolls and little dolls and my mother, strange enough was not a quilter but she sewed and crocheted and she made draperies and slip covers and all of our clothes, and so I always liked making little doll clothes and she would help me with them; well then if my doll didn't have a little blanket, that's how I first started making tiny little quilts, and I guess that's sort of kept up with me cause I'm really fascinated by miniature things and I've done a lot of miniature quilts since I officially learned how to quilt I guess you'd say.

LR: But then did you continue quilting?

JK: Yes, and what was kind of strange was when I was in college at--it was Madison College then, now it's James Madison University, but everything I liked to do were the old kinds of crafts. I wanted to try weaving and I wanted to try quiltmaking and things like that, and I think I was like three years ahead of my time. If I'd gone there in the--I graduated in '67. If I'd waited until about '70 when this big resurgence of all these crafts came about, I would have fit right in because my professors were always saying, 'Well that's a long time past thing. You don't want to do this, try this new thing.' But I wanted to try all these old things, that's sort of like a lost art and it came back. So I tried a lot of the things then and I just kept on, I never really made a quilt with all the layers though until after I got married because my little quilts that I made for dolls were just like the single little layer of pieced things. Prior to that I just did things with my grandmother as far as helping her select fabric and cut the patterns and that sort of thing. Now I read a lot about quilts because I was interested in their history and the women that made them and the names of the quilt patterns, but it wasn't until after I got married that I actually made my first quilt. And I took a lesson from a lady at our church, Beth Ford. We probably spent about twelve weeks doing quilting lessons and she was the one that give me all the technical expertises to how to do it right because grandmother didn't know all this, she just did hers the way she was used to doing them. And I always thought boy, if she knew I'd had all the gadgets that quilters had available then, that was the early 80's, like about 1982 when I took my first lessons, I made a small sampler quilt just to learn how to do an appliqué block, how to do a pieced block, and how to do quilted, just plain quilting and then that lead to doing this Log Cabin.

LR: What do you find pleasing about quilting?

JK: Well, I love colors and I like working with the colors and putting them together and I'm fascinated by the patterns. I think it's the history behind them and the color and the patterns that I like best, you know putting them all together. I'm not really--I'm more traditional. I've tried some of the new things like machine quilting and machine piecing, and I do that too, it depends if it's a pieced block or what, piece it on the machine and hand quilt it. But for some reason I like the look of the traditional ones that are hand quilted, they just have a different look than ones that are all done on the sewing machine all the way. But I think you should know how to do everything and use what's available to you today. The women long ago used what they had available and if they had a sewing machine, they used the sewing machine. [laughs.] So--

LR: What are your sources of inspiration?

JK: I think the history of the women. I really love history. I always have and it just fascinates me to read about women and the quilts that they made and where the names of the quilt patterns came from and-- Just studying the old patterns I think because that's where if I see a pattern or a story I'm really interested in Amish quilts and I've done a lot of extensive research on those and I have quite a collection of small, like wall hanging size, wall hangings that I've done just about in everyone of their patterns, but it just-- that is what inspires me, the women before and what they did and what we can do with it now and what we can add to it in today's world.

LR: How do you balance your quilting activities with your family and friends?

JK: Well-- in the last few years it's been really hard to have much time to quilt because of the quilt museum [Joan is Director/Curator of the Virginia Quilt Museum.] because that's been foremost in me taking care of that. By the time I get home and have a few minutes I'm so tired [laughs.] I hardly, I can't keep my eyes open anymore, maybe old age is catching up to me. But I do belong to a quilting guild here and I try when I can fit it in, try to keep, you know active as far as taking classes and things. The last class that I took was about a year and a half ago and it was on rotary cutting all your pieces ahead of time so that the entire quilt was completely cut out before you got to the class and machine stitching the whole thing together. Well that's really far out for me [laughs.] cause I'd rather do it the traditional way although I do use the rotary cutter, but to have the entire quilt cut, I just thought, 'Is this all gonna go together?' and I'm about three quarters finished with my top and it's all made out of feed sacks. And there again it goes back to my grandmother because she loved using colors in her quilts, and bright colors and she would use some of her feed sacks. She was always the one that had the tea towels made out of feed sacks and she'd save some of the sacks to put in her quilts and that got me interested, and so I thought one day when I save enough feed sacks I'm gonna make a quilt that's all out of feed sacks, and it just-- I'm sure goes back to remembering her and her times and my time as a little girl living with her those couple of years.

LR: You mention the museum. Talk a minute about the museum. We're talking about the Virginia Quilt Museum and how you as a quilter got involved with that and where you are today.

JK: Well, let's see. How I got involved with it started back before there ever was an idea for a quilt museum. It grew out of the Quilt Research Project in the State of Virginia and I was director of that. I've been director for about fourteen years of that project because we still continued it on. It actually started in about 1986 and we traveled on the road for like three years, three and a half years, going from site to site actually having documentation days. But then after the initial period ended, we've continued to document quilts and we ran into so many families that didn't have anyone to leave their quilts to, and it was sad because they had beautiful quilts and they would come in and few of them would say, 'We are unhappy that there's no place that we could even ask does anybody want these quilts and we're afraid when we pass away they are just gonna just be sold off and even taken out of the state.' And so after hearing that for about three years and meeting all these people around the state, I felt that's where the idea grew that we ought to think about establishing some sort of quilt museum. Of course you have to realize that quilt museums can't take every quilt that comes along so we still can't satisfy those wishes of all those people, but at least we've managed to save some of them and prevent them from going out of state being sold to dealers and whatever. So at that time when I was doing the quilt documentation on the road we called it, I was also, I had a little quilt shop in my house and was also teaching quilting classes and when I would go around the state doing quilting classes a lot of times I would go to Belle Grove Plantation in Middletown [Virginia.] and teach classes for them. And the lady that was there at that time, Suzi Williams--when I was there one time I told her about this and she said, 'I've thought the same thing,' so the two of us together kind of came up with the idea of why didn't we look into starting a quilt museum. And that's how the idea was created and it was kind of in name only at Belle Grove Plantation for about two or three years and then when the decision couldn't be made whether we were actually going to build a brand new building or should we take a portion of another building and use it or what was going to happen, we went to a museum consultant in Richmond and asked his advice and he said that we should probably find a little shop front somewhere in Virginia, didn't have to be up in Middletown, but somewhere where people could have easy access and even if it meant only having one quilt behind us hanging and a little counter top where people could get information. So we went all over Virginia looking for a place, explaining what we were trying to do, asking if they had an empty building that they would be willing to give us a chance for maybe six months to see if we could get a museum started. And we wrote letters to towns asking if they had buildings. It came down between Winchester, Staunton, and here in Harrisonburg. And Harrisonburg was the only one of the towns across Virginia that offered the house to us for like nothing, and they were so supportive and have been and what turned out to be, what was supposed to be the interim location, everyone came to this old house because it was built in 1856 and it seems to lend itself no matter whether we have a contemporary exhibit here or a traditional. They just fit in and all the visitors from all over the United States and foreign countries and right here in Virginia fell in love with the house, and they all said, 'We should stay here.' So we talked with the city and finally a year ago when we turned five years old, the city gave us the house for the museum. And that's kind of how it all happened. When I came, I was just on their board when the museum opened in 1995. Paula Rau was president of the board and then she finished her term and as--when it came time to elect the next president of the board, they said, 'Well, Joan, you [laughs.] you live closest so we're gonna put your name up,' so that's how I got the job and that evolved into director of the museum.

LR: Talk a little bit about history. You have this interest in history. How do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history in America?

JK: Well, I think women have always sewed their lives into their quilts. If something sad has happened, they pick up their quilts and that occupies their time and they sew their sorrows, they sew their happiness, whatever is--you can, I always say you can read a quilt just like you can read a book if you know about the patterns that were popular during that time frame in history. The fabrics where scraps from their dresses and so you can learn a lot about the culture and about those ladies and what they had available to them by their quilts; it's their way of expressing their feelings, maybe they didn't paint or didn't have access to paints or some other kind of craft, but they could sew and most all of them could figure out a way to get a needle and thread and fabric in some way or other. And we found that out in all the stories. I mean some ingenious things stories of ladies that didn't have means of buying five yards of fabric cause they wanted it all to match. I remember the story of one lady who dried apples and traded them at the dry goods store 'til she had enough to get enough yardage to make all the sashing on the front of her quilt match. And I just think that's really wonderful these stories of how the women, the Amish women, a lot of people talk about their quilts and how plain they are, but the quilting is exquisite and these elaborate patterns and the church dictated that they couldn't put bright colors and all but they expressed themselves in other ways that were sort of subtle but when you start studying they're really wonderful pieces of art, and they've lasted all this time and it's just a--because of the idea of a quilt being comforting and close, I just think that's special, that's the way I think of 'em. I just can feel close to the woman that made that one when I start investigating her stories or see a picture of her, you just kind of know what she was thinking about or maybe was thinking about when she made that quilt.

LR: What way do your quilts reflect your community or region?

JK: All the ones that I've made?

LR: Um huh.

JK: Well, I've got a big diversity. The first one, the Log Cabin quilt, reflects my like quilting heritage coming from my grandmother because it was a Log Cabin quilt that she gave me, and I'm the only one in our family, she made a quilt for all her grandchildren and each of her daughters and no one has a quilt that was quilted by her, only me. Everybody else has a tied quilt as though she must have known cause I kept pestering her about it and talking to her about it, and I think she put like an army blanket or something in mine cause it's so heavy you can barely stand to--so you know something about what was going on at that time, it was right after World War II and the Korean War had started and she used what she had available to her. So that sort of reflects that time period but then my other quilts, I have like, for example, I've done one that--I like to study history so a lot of my quilts I'll study some part like I said I did a lot of Amish quilts, all the ones I've studied, all the patterns, I like to try to make a sample of each one of those. And I love the colors, and I guess that goes back to my background as an art major because I was one course short of being double major, history and art, and probably I should have stayed and gotten the other three credit hours, but it hasn't hurt. I don't think they had any more courses for me to take then. But I at one time had done a lot of studying about the African American quilts and Harriet Powers and the Underground Railroad. I was really fascinated with her quilts and the two that are known. And so I did a series of sort of story quilts, and one of them I've been working on probably now for maybe six years and it's a quilt of faith and I designed all the blocks in it. I'm about half way finished, the designs are on the order of the figures in Harriet Powers' quilts, you know kind of like little dough boy fat stick figures or whatever you want to call them and they each depict someone in the Bible that displayed faith as their strong point. So some day I'll get that, I have faith that I'm gonna get it [laughs.] finished. But I worked on a piece when we had the big controversy about the quilts at the Smithsonian being licensed off for China to make for mass reproduction over there to be sold over here. The quilters all over the country you know were really alarmed, it really touched home here because that was like right in the middle of when we were thick into the quilt documentation in Virginia, and to think that the quilts that were chosen were some of the best ones in American history as far as our quiltmaking history, and they were the ones they gave license to reproduce. So I made a little quilt. It's a large wall hanging size and it's the Harriet Powers' figures [Joan reaches for the quilt to show.] but it depicts the quilters of today protesting around the Smithsonian. There's the red castle [Joan points to it.] of the Smithsonian indicates that. And then going back to the idea of using the new things we have available, I did photo transfers and made a picture of each one of the little quilts that was originally licensed off, and cut them out and folded them and appliquéd those onto the quilt. And then in the sun looking over the whole scene, in the middle of the sun, is Harriet Powers looking down like she's not too happy. And, of course, there were lots of things written in the newspapers about this, so around the whole inner border is an article from the Washington Post and a quote from, I think it was from Albert Gore, Jr., it was, he was a senator then. So I've written that in so it's like recording a part of our history that was happening there by putting the little quote from the newspaper. I just felt strongly about that and I wanted to put it in a quilt, so that's what I did [laughs.].

LR: I know this is--you had a hard time selecting which quilt would be your touchstone piece and so we'll photograph this quilt as well as cause I know you kind of wanted both of them to be part of the interview. Tell me, have you had quilts in other exhibits?

JK: Yes

LR: In other exhibitions?

JK: Oh, I don't even know how to name all the ones. I've had 'em at the APVA show in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

LR: And that is the what?


LR: Which is?

JK: Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. Had them in there many times and I've won ribbons there for them. I've had them in the National Quilting Association exhibit. That's the quilt I was just talking about, about the Smithsonian, won an honorable mention at that NQA show. I've had them at Sully Plantation [Chantilly, Virginia.]. I've had them at the Woodlawn Needlework Show [Woodlawn Planation originally part of Mount Vernon near Alexandria, Virginia.]. Took me thirteen years of needleworking to finally get the blue ribbon there [laughs.]. My children both entered things in the junior division and would win like second place or first place and mother was always third place, and the year that I changed from cross stitch, right around the same time I started taking quilting lessons, I was really heavy into cross stitch, like the year before that, and I just kept doing cross stitch things and designed a lot of my own patterns. But the year that I finally did something in quilting was the year I won the blue ribbon for it. And it was a quilt pillow. Not a big quilt. And it was a crazy quilt done on--trying to--reproduction fabrics weren't real big then so I tried to make my own look so they'd look like the old fabrics of around the Civil War and I did photo transfers of Lee and Grant and it had the Confederate Flag and the Union Flag and I found Civil War buttons to put on it. It was just a large size pillow but really old looking and most people thought I used the original old fabric and it was all fabric that I had tea dyed and whatever to make it look old, and that's what I got the ribbon for so, and after thirteen years of trying my husband said, 'Don't try any more.' I think he was tired [laughs.] hearing me fuss about this all the time. But a lot of my quilts that I've entered in the shows have had-- I remember the last one I think I had in the APVA show was a miniature, as I said before I really like doing little miniature quilts, and it was a miniature of the center section of a hexagon quilt, a hexagon mosaic not a Grandmother's Flower Garden, that we had documented in Madison, Virginia, the owner had some of the blocks that hadn't been put into the quilt that were still left that had old letters from the Civil War on the back that they had used for their little paper foundation. And that's something that I've found in doing all this quilt research, that everything that we think is new has, it was done, eventually you find that they did it back there too. And I always thought that was real interesting, but it's a tiny little miniature that I started in a class with Tina Gravin. It took me a whole year working on that little hexagon. Everyday I set aside a time, this was before the museum came along, right before I moved to Harrisonburg, and I was still in Alexandria. And I remember when I'd finished it and entered it in, that also went to Woodlawn, it was like I had lost something because I was so used to every day having an hour and a half or so to work on this and then when I didn't have it any more it was like your child went off or something [laughs.] and so I get attached to my quilts. I guess everybody does.

LR: What do you think makes a great quilt?

JK: I think the design of the quilt. The color combinations that have something dynamic that hasn't been done or that isn't a copy of something else. The stitching, all of those technical things that go into it but if it's an original design like so many are today it's that person putting themselves into it and you can really tell, you know if they've put a lot into it, a lot of research, a lot of time and effort, it just comes through in their quilt, and it makes that so much more special compared to another. But it's their, also their dedication to making the needlework as perfect as they can get it so that it is considered a great quilt.

LR: So what would make a quilt appropriate for a museum, for example here in the Virginia Quilt Museum? What quilts are appropriate for this museum?

JK: Well, we have, we first tried to get, or are trying to get, a good sampling of all the traditional patterns. Of course, we try to get quilts that are in good condition because of the problem of the age of the quilt and having to store it, having to insure it. So we try to find something that is in fairly good condition, although we have several quilts that the condition is not so important as the historical background of that quilt or something associated with it that you know you need to save, you need to preserve it. So we have several pieces like that. But pretty much we've tried to have a good overall sampling of all the different quilt patterns, quilt styles, techniques that were used. And then we have a small grouping of what we call educational pieces and some of those fall into that category where they might not be in really good condition but we can use those to learn from, to learn how the woman construct it like the Crazy quilt blocks before they put the backing on it. And to show the public how this was done because they can't touch the quilts or see what's inside of them when they come here so it you have these other pieces they can learn from that. And I have lot of volunteers here that are really into the machine piecing, machine quilting and everything done by rotary cutting and every time we have a beginners' class here we always learn the first block to mark it all by hand, cut it all by hand, piece it all by hand because I think that you really need to know that to get an appreciation for what these women did long ago, so that when you come to the museum and see a quilt made in the 1840's they didn't have all these tools and you appreciate it, all the time and effort that went into their quilt and they didn't have modern lighting and it's just amazing to me at the stitching that they, and how tiny the stitches are. And of course, we also teach them how to do the modern way. But I always tell them if the electricity goes off they can still sew if they know how to do it the old fashioned way [laughs.].

LR: How do you think great quilters learn the art of quilting, especially how to design a pattern or choose fabrics? How do you learn that?

JK: Well, some of them that I have met and talked to have taken lots of classes. I mean really have been studious about taking as many classes from different people and learning all the different techniques. Other people started out learning just the basics and it's something just built into them. They may never have had any art classes, but they just have this intuition about what colors to use and how to put it all together. And I know a lot of quilters like that. They've never had any art background but once they've learned the basics of constructing the quilt and they've made a few, cause it's always real interesting to look at quilters today, the ones that have come from the beginning and see their very first quilt and then what they're doing now. How much they've learned and how incredible they are, but I think the whole thing in a nut shell is they've learned those basic techniques and then they built upon what they learned with what's available today and what new things. They have time today to try new things and experiment on their own. And I think that's kind of a neat thing about quilting is women aren't afraid today to say, 'I know how to do this technique, now I want to try using this technique this way of doing it,' and creating on their own and it gives them that creative outlet, that artistic outlet to be an artist in their quilt.

LR: Talk a little bit about the preservation of quilts. How do you think they can be preserved for the future?

JK: Here at the museum, of course, that's a big part of our mission and the visitors that come in here, the lectures and classes we offer on quilt preservation, we're trying to educate the public on the proper care of their quilts at home. I think that's a big part of it because there's an awful lot of quilts that are out there in people's homes that the public has never seen and documentation projects have never seen because they've just never brought them out to be shown. And if they know how to properly take care of them in their house, and in their own homes and gain that respect. And there are so many people that come here to the quilt museum that look at quilts and they'll ask a few questions about, 'Well, I have an old quilt, how should I take care of it.' Many times they'll bring it back to us and we'll look at it, help them identify the pattern, and they'll ask us how could it be cleaned or how could some conservation work be done on a place where it's sort of worn. And we'll work with them on that. We try to help every single person that comes in, you know "hands on" to show them how to take care of their quilt. And it's amazing how they gain a whole new appreciation. That quilt could have been put in that cedar chest for fifty years or more and they come here to visit and see other people's quilts and realize how old they are and what good condition they're still in because that particular family that donated it or had it in the current exhibit or whatever, took good care of it and knew how to properly care for it. And it awakens them to say, 'Hey, I've got that. I should go check mine make sure it isn't in a plastic bag or something.' So I think that's the main point is to make the public aware of it and then to have some kind of lectures or something available on a pretty continuous basis throughout a year so that you can teach them how to properly care for their quilts. If no one's there to show them, it doesn't do any good to say you shouldn't be putting them in this if you don't tell them what they should be doing.

LR: What advice do you give them?

JK: Well, first of all we ask them how they've stored it because a lot of them do have them in plastic bags and that's the main thing. I always say, 'Don't try to send it to the cleaners. Don't try to wash it or anything until you bring it to someone that knows something about quilt preservation and conservation that they can look at it and advise you better.' But to make sure, they have to bring the quilt in to have it looked at. It's not something you can do over the telephone if they're that serious about it. And usually I just tell them for the time to just make sure that it's in like an old pillow case or wrap it in muslin and refold it, that's an important thing every six months or so, take it out, refold it so it doesn't get those creases. If they just do that, remember to refold it and keep it wrapped in an old piece of muslin or in an old pillow case, that helps it a whole lot not to be laying on bare wood or on a closet shelf or whatever. Here in our collection we try to practice what we preach I guess is what we should say. We have most of them in acid free boxes. We hope to have one section here sometime that will be on rollers, for like the chintz quilts, but we don't have a large number of those so we could accommodate those on rollers. But we store them in acid free boxes where we're really conscientious about doing the refolding. I usually have interns from JMU [James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.] they come in and we teach them in their museum studies programs. And this year we're going to start something new in that our second floor will be devoted to showing the quilts in the collection and whereas we've had to set two or three days aside every year, twice a year, to refold all the quilts and it's pretty back breaking after a while, this'll help us to not have to do them all at one time during a three day or four day period. As we rotate them on exhibit, that's when we'll refold and check to see that everything is still in good condition, make any necessary conservation repairs or whatever. But I always follow that--I've taken classes from several people involved with conservation and I remember Dixie Reddick who worked at the Smithsonian. Her rule was 'You never do anything that can't be undone,' and that's what we tell everybody and that's what we try to do here at the quilt museum.

LR: You mentioned the students at JMU. How can we encourage quilting in young people?

JK: Well, they usually come in here and don't have clue about sewing a stitch. They don't even know to thread a needle [laughs.] and I find that kind of funny because I asked them last year, I had five grad students, and none of them had every sewed. They really literally did not know how to thread a needle or how to put a knot in the end of the thread. And then I had two students that were in the program for museum studies and they have to put a hundred and thirty some hours in for their internships here. They didn't really know much about sewing. And it goes back to what they say their mothers didn't sew so they didn't teach them to sew. They never learned. And I asked them, 'Well, what do you do if you have a hem come loose in your dress or something?' And they said, 'Well, we scotch tape it or duck tape on it or staple it or we just throw it away,' and I thought, 'My goodness, you know, think of all that material and all those skirts they're throwing away.' [laughs.] But it just amazes me. So we usually when I have students in here we--sometime in the training process end up sitting down and learning how to thread a needle, and what's been really exciting. Lately they work on the old blocks that have been given to us, like nine patches and four patches; they have been putting them together, assembling them in different learning pieces that will hang in our "hands on" children's room. So actually students, older students, are putting the pieces together that will be used by the elementary age students. And they are learning to do a basic running stitch, and they're so proud. Last year the five grad students that came were putting together nine patch blocks and after they finished they were supposed to turn them in. Well, they all had to take them home for their winter break because they had to show their mothers that they had sewn something. And the one girl was just-- her mother was so beside herself that her daughter had made a nine patch that I let her keep hers because it was like this proud moment that a mother never knew how to sew and the daughter had learned and it was just a simple little nine patch. I'm kind of soft hearted and let her keep hers [laughs.] I would like to see, when we get our downstairs lower level of classrooms done, I would like to see us start a class for the college students on basic sewing techniques because a lot of the classes come here, sociology classes and all, studying the quilts and the women, their stories, and they really are interested in the quilts after they get into reading and learning about them. But they all say but 'How would you start that? How would you make a quilt? We don't know.' And I think the interest is there. They just need the opportunity to be able to learn how to thread that needle and how to cut the patches. Last year we had one girl come in. She's a JMU student and she came in to ask this advice. She was doing her first quilt. Her mother and her grandmother neither one pieced. She had read about quilting and wanted to start her own and started an Ohio Star with all those little triangular points. I thought, 'What an ambitious girl.' Before the school year was out she had finished the whole top. She came in here and found out what it was. She joined our little Wednesday evening quilting bee at once a month at the museum, brought her quilt blocks so that she could get help from quilters that had been doing it for quite a long time and finished her quilt and it was in the exhibit, this last exhibit that we had. It's just the quilt top. But it was "Quilts of Faith" [title of the exhibition.] and she had faith that she was gonna finish that quilt and no one in her family knew anything about quilting. And her words to me when I asked her about it, she said that she really admired the women back in history who made quilts and she wanted that tradition to be carried on in her generation. So that's why she wanted to make a quilt all by herself. And her mother and her grandmother are so proud of her that she made this whole top and it was on view here. Now she came to pick it up about two weeks ago and this is just starting this fall semester of 2001 and her goal is by the end of this school year to have it all quilted, and she will I'm sure. I felt like we got one college student involved with it all the way. Another one that was a museum studies student, she was an art major. She really worked on the exhibits here and studying the types of quilts and she was really influenced by the Crazy quilts and she went back to her fiber arts class and hand dyed and created her own fabrics out of silk. Actually made the little patterns that she wanted to with I guess resist method so it wasn't just solid colors, and then did this large panel that looked like a stained glass window out of it. So she worked from scratch, she stitched it, she dyed her own fabric, everything and I thought--so I've twice seen students that have been really influenced by coming here and just getting involved with it and having somebody here to answer their questions and what they've turned out has been really wonderful I think.

LR: I know you've done a lot of traveling throughout the State of Virginia. What do you see in the way of quilting activities among younger children in elementary schools perhaps?

JK: Well, one of the things at the quilt museum that we've done since we opened is every exhibit always has at least one piece of work made by students, so we're able to see them from all over. We've had them from southwest Virginia, from Richmond and northern Virginia and currently we have Tidewater [coastal plain region from the Potomac River south to North Carolina.] quilts. So they are really involved with quiltmaking usually through their art classes. But I remember the northern Virginia quilts that came in, two of them, it was the math teacher that had the children working on quilts and they were using these little blocks or something they used to count with and measure in math class. And after they would do their measuring and their counting and their figuring and in fractions, they actually designed their quilt blocks using these little wooden blocks and then transferred them over into the same color fabrics so it was like you were looking at these blocks made into fabrics. They usually for the most part don't do a lot of piecing except here in the Harrisonburg area. The one school that we're partnering with actually designed their own quilt blocks, the children do geometric blocks and cut them out and piece them. Most of the ones we've seen, the majority are like drawn on with fabric crayons and they're depicting whatever, if they're studying something special in social studies, they'd be depicting that, or if it's something special in geography it depicts that. And the current ones that are here are on all the standards of learning things, and that was supported by the art classes at that particular school in Tidewater and the library. So it's different teachers involved with that. But I think the one that's taken it farthest has been the one right here in Rockingham County where the entire school, every child, five hundred and some children, each designed a quilt block from kindergarten up through sixth grade. They had a competition within each grade level to pick a winner and then from each winner from each grade level, one winner for the school was chosen. That was a third grade student whose block was actually, literally designed on the front lawn of the school with the bricks being the sashing strips and everything is laid out so it's a living quilt garden designed on her block. The children tied in planting it with their science department, growing seeds, planting perennials, and the difference between annuals, and they had parents donate money to plant this so they have their names inscribed on the bricks. It's the most fantastic thing and each year they have built on this. At the end of last year we went in June to their classroom and took feather weight sewing machines to the teacher's class that instigated all this to begin with a year ago, and they had never sewn on sewing machines. I think one little girl had tried to sit on her mother's lap and use the machine. They constructed in a couple of hours that morning all of the blocks for an Underground Railroad quilt. And amazingly almost every one of them turned out to be twelve inches square. We were just amazed [laughs.] and they were so excited that they had made these on the sewing machines when they'd never sewn, and they loved it. And now that quilt will be assembled and put down in the "hands on" children's room so that when other classrooms come visit the museum, the quilt they study with these Underground Railroad blocks will be hanging on the wall when they come in, and students made it.

LR: Our time is just about up. We just have about a minute left. Is there anything else that you would like to add?

JK: Well, I don't know. I think we've covered about all of it except that I miss having time to quilt. But in the same light we've done so much to make this museum become what it is that I feel like that's a really important part of quilting and preserving our quilting history, and I always think one day I'll have time to get back to my quilting. And I still try to make time. That's kind of my New Year's resolution this year, but with all the renovation going on it's kind of gone by the wayside, but maybe I'll do it again this year. To give myself like two weeks, two hours each week to devote to my quilting because I really feel like when I really feel wound up, nervous or down in the dumps, if I can just go make something or create something, it gets rid of all that. So that really proves what women put into their quilts when it has that therapeutic effect on them.

LR: Well, thank you, Joan, [Joan says, 'you're welcome' in the background.] for allowing me to interview you today as part of the Quilters' S.O.S.-Save Our Stories project and our interview was concluded at 5:30 p.m.

Interview Keyword

Log Cabin (Quilt pattern)
African American quiltmakers
Miniature quilts
Crazy quilts
Young people



“Joan Knight,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 15, 2024,