Sonya Lee Barrington




Sonya Lee Barrington


Sonya Lee Barrington is a self-taught quilter from San Francisco, California who began quiltmaking in 1968. She began in apparel, and became interested after seeing many quilts in antique shops. Barrington does strictly hand quilting and makes many environmental quilts inspired by her desert surroundings. She is a member of the Baulines Craft Guild, which includes quilters as well as other craft makers.




Melanie Grear


Sonya Lee Barrington


Le Rowell

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Susan Salser


San Francisco, CA

Interview indexer

Anne Lafferty


Kim Greene


**This transcript was created by QSOS volunteers and was reviewed and, in some cases, edited by the interviewee. It may not exactly match the audio recording. For citations and interview quotations, please refer to the audio-recorded interview.** Le Rowell (LR): This is Le Rowell and today's date is February 19, 2008 and it is 10:25 a.m. in the morning, and I am conducting an interview with Sonya Lee Barrington for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. We are in Sonya's studio in her home in San Francisco, California. Sonya, tell me about the quilt that you selected for today.

Sonya Lee Barrington (SLB): I chose this quilt Le because it is my favorite. I have a lot of quilts and they all mean something, but this one is really one that I cherish quite a lot, and I guess that the reason is, that it is made with my hand dyed fabric, and I used a technique that I have done a lot of teaching, I teach this technique, this curved strip piecing. It is hand quilted, which I love to do, I don't machine quilt. If I need something done by a machine, I have to hire somebody to do it for me. I've never, actually I really don't want to learn to do that. I have enough things to do. [laughs.] I do love hand quilting and let's see, the quilt is all cotton. It is kind of a Nine Patch and the title of it is "Summer at Ocean Beach." Ocean Beach is where I live. Look at the day here today, it is really gray and rainy and some of these colors remind me of the day on the beach, the ocean, the waves, and then of course the curved lines kind of remind me of the water. I am really influenced a lot by my environment, not that I make environmental quilts, but that I look at the colors around me and in my garden I have a lot of succulent plants and one of the reasons is because we are in the sand and I don't need to water things if I use succulents and then I also have Eucalyptus trees so they don't have to be watered. In California we want to conserve our water, [laughs.] although we have had a lot of rain lately. A lot of my work has kind of reflected my love of the plants and the water, and because I live so close to here. I was born in the city. I'm a second generation San Franciscan. [laughs.] I have lived in this house since 1964. I started making quilts in 1968 and haven't stopped.

LR: How did you get started?

SLB: In quilting?

LR: Yes.

SLB: It is kind of a funny story. In the late sixties or in 1966, my husband and I, at that time I was married, we had a sandal shop in the Haight-Ashbury and I made clothing, I made kind of fancy clothes and I also made leather garments and that was kind of exciting, and I did appliqué on these garments, leather on leather and sewn beads. We separated two years later and I went into a craft cooperative with several other people, and that was also in San Francisco, so I was selling my leather garments. Then it got a little difficult because we had a lot of competition from Mexico within the leather business. So at the same time where the shop was, we had a lot of antique stores and there were quilts all over it. I said, 'Quilt, I can do that.' [laughs.] I started making quilts and I haven't stopped. That store lasted for two years and then it closed and I continued on working. I got a job at City College in San Francisco and I was teaching quilting. I actually taught there for eighteen years, and I taught quilting and surface design. Surface design came little later than the quiltmaking part of it. In 1978 I had a partner and we actually had a quilt store in San Francisco. It was called "Ocean Beach Quilters." [laughs.] It was way over in the marina district on the other side of town, but that lasted for two years. We didn't make much income from it. It was very difficult, it was still kind of early for quilt stores, people would say, we would have classes, we had fabric and we sold goods that we had produced. That sort of ended. That ended in 1980 and at that point in time I was still working for the college and I got my first job at a symposium, a quilt symposium and that was--I'm trying to think, that was in Ashland, Oregon and actually Yvonne [Porcella.] was there that same time, so you can ask her about that. I taught for the symposium and that is sort of where that kind of teaching began. Virginia [Avery.] was there, Jeffery [Gutcheon.] was there, Michael James was there, so we were all sort of there at that same period of time, that was in 1980, and in 1990 I started wanting to do something new for my classes and wanting to expand my job there at the school, and also wanting to have some fabric that was sort of different, so I started dyeing fabric and marbling fabric. Not only did I teach in the surface design classes, but I also started selling the fabrics. I began to go around to different quilt conferences, Quilt Market at Houston [Texas.] and all that, and sold my hand dyed and my marbled fabric, and I did that for about ten years. Every sort of little period of my career has been kind of a ten year sort of, I mean in the eighties I did work that I used a lot of curves, curved seams, and I did a lot of quilts that had very bright colors and some had black and white checkerboards. That was sort of--that period of time they were all hand quilted. Then in the nineties I used the hand dyed fabric exclusively in my work, and now I'm working with wool and they are all recycled, the fabrics are recycled so I get these garments and take them all apart and wash them. I love working with the wool, and then the quilts also have a wool back and the batting is wool, and I embroider on the top first and then when I put it together I quilt it by hand, and I use a pearl cotton for that. It is really lovely to work with, I enjoy that. In the mid-eighties I guess I started doing some of the national craft shows, like American Craft Council, and I stopped doing those, I mean I actually had a line of work that I wholesaled. I did small purses. I did jewelry rolls, eyeglass cases, covered books, and those were actually sold at the Renwick Museum gift shop at that time. They were bright colors and they had the checkerboard and the skewed Log Cabin pattern. When I stopped doing the bright colors, I actually did a line with black polished and plain fabrics and then with marbled, black marbled fabric, so I did a whole line of that in the wholesale and I had accounts all over the country. I actually had a rep who represented me, a woman, and so I had different things in different galleries and gift shops and boutiques and museum shops, and a couple of times I actually did the gift show in San Francisco, which is very difficult. Again, now that I actually quit the job in school after eighteen years and I started selling more work, so I went back into doing the craft shows. I'm doing more of those and trying to have more--have my work exhibited in galleries and places, more in California than any other place. I will have to say that while some people call me an art quilter, I don't necessarily call myself that although I think when I started on the scene, so to speak, in the eighties I guess I was sort of in the forefront of the movement at that time, given also the fact that I started in '68, but I don't consider myself that. A lot of my work is more traditional in patterning, although I tend to think that maybe my colors are a little different than others and the fact that I still do hand quilting and I don't sew a lot of stuff on my quilts, so I don't consider myself an art quilter, and also I have never been in Quilt National or VISIONS, I don't even enter those shows for some reason, I don't think my work is appropriate for that, although I think my work is good and excellent and it is decorative, it is not really--oh what would be the word, it is decorative and somewhat functional and even though the functionality doesn't make it non-decorative and doesn't make it worse than anything else, I still like, especially with the wool I like the functionality of it. I always like to do something different than somebody else is doing. That is sort of, let's see have I covered all of the history of my beginnings. I don't have any art degrees, I have a very simple associate of art degree from junior college.

LR: Do you have quiltmakers in your family?

SLB: No.

LR: How did you learn to quilt?

SLB: Just by doing it. [laughs.]

LR: From books, by teachers?

SLB: No there weren't books or teachers at that time, there was Jean Ray Laury and she did have a book. I did have a quilt that I, and I can't say that my grandmother made it, but I did inherit it from her, Sun Bonnet Sue, it was appliquéd. I have it, it is very sweet, it is crib size and the little girls are sewn on with a top stitch, a running stitch along the edge of the appliqué. When I first started in the late sixties, I didn't know how to piece anything, I knew how to sew, my grandmother taught me how to sew, I learned on a treadle sewing machine. I actually lived with my grandmother and so I did these appliqués and not knowing how to do the traditional hidden stitch, I hadn't even heard of that or seen it, I just had this one quilt and I said I love this little stitch here and so I started doing work by top stitching the appliqués and I used a pearl cotton thread. I did that for I don't know, five or seven years. When I first started making the big quilts or, because I had this shop and I was selling work, they had to be functional, I used really heavy upholstery batting and it was really thick and I had to uses a long darner's needle to get through that to quilt it with this pearl cotton. First it would be appliquéd with the pearl cotton and then it would be quilted with it. I guess the little Sun Bonnet Sue quilt did inspire me, at least with techniques and I sort of made it up as I went along. I did a couple of quilts that were very, the one was a star and I didn't even think about how to piece that star, I just sewed the little parts together of the star and then I appliquéd it on the square because you see I didn't know, and so I just kind of limped along like that for a long time teaching myself and then later trying to do traditional piecing like on a sewing machine, actually drawing out a pattern and making a template and then I just got a lot more involved in that and would always do a drawing on graph paper and stick to that drawing and then enlarge it and make a template and I always would have a design wall and that is usually my design wall there with just a piece of batting on it, so I would cut all my pieces out and put them on the wall before I sewed anything together.

LR: Sonya was pointing to her design wall because we are sitting here in her studio.

SLB: Yes, which traditionally would be a dining room in this house.

LR: Talk about it a minute, it is a lovely combination.

SLB: Every since I moved into this house this has been my work room, even when my children were small. My daughter was born in this house. I have this old sewing machine here. I bought it used in 1964 or something, I guess, when I moved in here.

LR: It is a Singer.

SLB: It is a Singer, it is old, it is a tailoring machine and it only sews forward. Doesn't sew backwards, it doesn't make buttonholes, it doesn't do anything but it has a big motor on it and it is great, it is lovely and it is my baby. It is my very special tool. I don't have a lot of fancy tools. I have the rotary cutter and a couple of rulers, but the sewing machine is the main thing. In all of the years that my kids were growing up here, they never did get into the sewing machine. They didn't get into my stuff. It was just sort of like that is mom's stuff. What I love about this room in particular that it has the window of the east. I get the light. I get the light from this little window by the sewing machine and so I get light, it is the best room in the house to work in. I have these cupboards here that have fabric in them, and right now they have wool fabric. They used to have the cotton and there were all the multi-colors of all the cottons that I dyed. I still have the cotton. I just stored it away for another time. I just love this room. This has always been my sewing room. When we have parties I put some stuff away and then we use the dining room table as a table, but it is such a great table because it is on rollers, it is on little casters and I can move it around and the hardwood floor is great, it is easy to clean.

LR: Is this an oak table?

SLB: It is an oak table. It goes along with the rest of the furniture in the house. Actually my collection, some of the antiques that I have were from my grandmother so I'm really pleased to have that, have her presence with me.

LR: The furniture?

SLB: A good portion of the furniture. There is a bench downstairs that was hers, the desk is hers, was hers, and I have a chair in my bedroom. I just like having her presence around. She was very important in my life.

LR: You talked about hand dyed fabrics, talk a minute about how you do that, the techniques that you use for hand dyeing.

SLB: Because I never do anything on a really small scale I use the washing machine. It is a lot easier than doing little bits in buckets and especially if you want to have more yardage. So I started doing five yards at a time of a color and first I just did it for myself and then I thought, this is great so then I started doing the gradations. I did three different kinds of gradations. One was a five step dark to light, one was an eight step that went from one color across the color wheel to another like from orange to purple with all the gray kind of mauves and taupe's in between. Then I did a twelve step gradation that was a color wheel. I did those in darks and lights and then I did some by adding brown that toned it all down, and when I finished with the end, I had about three hundred and fifty colors and I was always really careful and I kept my formulas so that I could reproduce those colors. I don't think I really learned about color until I started dyeing fabric. Really knowing why this color works with that one because it came from the family of color and how to have--for instance I did a quilt when I was selling fabrics at the quilt shows. I went to Paducah for about ten years one year after the other. I needed to have samples for the booth; you know to actually show people. While the quilters are inquisitive and inventive and creative, you still need to show people what can be done, so I had a beautiful quilt that I did. I used one piece of-- one fat quarter of marbled fabric. I used one gradation of five steps, five colors dark to light and those were, they were all fat quarters and then I used a gradation of purple to orange or actually it was, yeah, it was purple to orange and that was an eight step gradation with all the colors that were in between. So using those colors it was just fabulous to make a quilt and to show the people that you could just take this amount of fabric and make a quilt. The color that I put with the purple to orange gradation or purple to sort of muted yellow colors. It is hard to talk about colors. You really have to see colors. I did a turquoise, sort of an aqua turquoise border on it and that was the dark to light five step gradations and so you have all the complimentary colors there. It was--and that again is a good teaching tool for the public and to show them what could be done. I also would teach dyeing classes. I have been doing that for a long time. That would be a good sample, a good class sample, that particular piece. This quilt here that we are looking at today, I use this as a class sample both for the dyeing class and for the curved piecing class, so this kind of covers two. I tend to like a lot of neutral colors. I have had my fling with the reds and blues and purples and blacks and whites and the brights and at that time I was even working with polished cotton so there was another little element that came into the work. Actually, those pieces photograph a lot better than this particular hand dyed. The hand dyes are hard to photograph, they are more subtle and they are quieter and if you were to take like a black and white of this quilt there is some contrast because there are these little tiny white strips in here, but a lot of it is so similar in value, which I do really realize about my work because I think a lot of my work is similar has a lot of not changes of value not contrasting values and I don't really pay attention to that when I'm working, I just pay attention to the color itself. Only when I started having black and white photographs of my work did I notice that the value, oh I don't think about it. It doesn't matter as much when you are looking at it in color, but when you want something for a newspaper article you want that fine contrast. [laughs.] Some of my work just doesn't fit that description.

LR: What do you find most pleasing about quiltmaking?

SLB: The actual doing of it. If I don't have something to sew, I'm not there and I love sewing, I just love the fabric in my hand, I love the needle, I love the stitching. Designing is fun, pulling the colors, each step has its own beauty and I love each step separately. I think the only part that I don't like is if I'm doing a quilt and if I'm going to hand quilt it then I normally would put it on my table here and baste it together, the three layers, that is the part where it just doesn't look every nice, when it has all those basting stitches in it and I can't wait to get it all quilted and take all that thread away, that other thread [laughs.] which will tell you that I don't quilt in a hoop and I don't quilt on a frame. I hold it absolutely in my lap or in this case I would hold it on a table and just stitch it in my hands. I need to be contained and controlled so I baste it. Sometimes I will do some extra pinning.I will put pins in the area where I want to do the quilting. In order to mark the quilts I have done different, used different methods. In the past I would just use a pencil, like one of those silver pencils and if I was working on things that have quarter circles I would use a compass and draw the line. I have to only do, or I could only do a section at a time. I could never mark the whole thing at once because I'm working on it in my hands and it rubs off. More recently, in fact with this particular quilt, I didn't mark it with a pencil but I have this little old tool that is [phone rings.] I forgot about the phone.

LR: That is okay.

SLB: I'm sorry.

LR: Not a problem.

SLB: Just take it off and leave it off the hook. I meant to undo it. I meant to turn it off. I have this little old marking tool that one used to use for dressmaker's carbon, it just has these little, it has a little wheel on it and so I draw my design or my line or two lines or something on the quilt, quilt it and then put it back on the table and then draw a couple more lines and quilt it. Therefore, you don't have like a pencil line or a marking line, and I've never used those blue markers that are supposedly you wet them and you remove. I don't kind of trust that, I don't believe in that. The quilting has to be--it is very spontaneous because you can't, you just do a section at a time. I always sometimes work from the inside out and sometimes from the outside in so there is no rhyme or reason to that. It is just what I have in my mind. If I know what the border is going to be, I will do the border. I also don't believe that there is one way to do something. [laughs.] When I'm teaching, I just tell my students, I don't care how you get there as long as you have the result that you want, as long as your finished piece is pleasant and satisfies you. You could do some hand piecing, some machine piecing, hand quilting, machine quilting. However, whatever as long as you get--as long as your product is what you want and it satisfies you.

LR: Describe how you sign your quilts.

SLB: With these cotton quilts I usually do my initials and the date. Some pieces, if I have a large enough space I will sign my whole name. I do use, my whole name is Sonya Lee Barrington, not just Sonya, I prefer the whole name and I enjoy doing that. Since I started, lets see what am I thinking of, when I started doing the craft shows, instead of just having, this was in the nineties, instead of having a lot of quilts in the booth, I decided that I wanted to do small work, like something really intimate, so I started doing these very small appliqués, they were hand appliquéd and some machine piecing and then I over embroidered them with sewing machine thread and I always did a little binding on it, and some are like six inches square, some are nine inches square, some are twenty-one inches square or some are rectangles, but I did some very--I did some landscaping kind of traditional landscape things. I did some things that are just pure design, and I always signed those. Some of them if they were quilted I signed in the piece of work itself. Otherwise I signed it on the mat board, because I then sewed the small little thing that some people call potholders. [laughs.] I have actually been at a show where people would ask me, 'Why on earth would you frame a potholder?' [laughs.] My response was this is not a potholder and of course it is not a potholder because it is framed. [laughs.] The funniest things that people would say to you, but then I would always sign it with my full name and the date. I do like signing my work. Some pieces like this one actually have a label on the back that I actually sewed a separate piece onto the quilt and I wrote on it in ink and then I fringed the little label. I've done that many times. When I had an old, old typewriter I used to put muslin into the typewriter and type the label and it lasted for a long time. I mean it stayed, but of course we don't have type writers with ribbons anymore. [laughs.] But that is kind of low tech, I mean I could get all of those, some of that fabric that you can print on in the computer, but I just don't do that. I'm still a little low tech here.

LR: What do you think makes a great quilt?

SLB: What makes a great quilt? Well I think from the maker's point of view is, if you really like it. If you are really happy with it, if it moves you. I think from the viewer's standpoint that is really hard to say because everybody sees everything so differently. I personally tend to be drawn to things that are simple. Less is more for me personally. I love the whole ethic of the old Amish quilts, and that really has been an inspiration for me, the simplicity and the straight forwardness and the beauty and the quietness of them all put together. When I see something that moves me, it may not always be the same kind of work. For me that when I make something and I love it, it just is a combination of the color. A lot of it has to do with color. Color is really important to me and then as the maker the actual doing of it. Like this particular piece I just love this. I probably won't--well all of my work is for sale and I have sold a lot of work. I probably won't sell this piece, this is really special, and I'm being more careful when I take it to workshops. I don't let it just get thrown around because I will never make another one, even though this is rather small.

LR: What makes a great quiltmaker?

SLB: That is a good question, what makes a great quiltmaker. Kind of explain that to me a little more, because I'm not really, what makes a great quiltmaker, I think you just have to have a heart for it. I think you have to like your work. I know that there are, we have levels of quiltmakers, some people are professionals, some people are collectors, they make and they collect, some people are basically students. That is a really hard question Le, what makes a great quiltmaker.

LR: You could describe yourself.

SLB: I could describe myself. [laughs.] That is sweet. [laughs.] I have to say that I do love my work. I have been doing this work for a long time in one way or another. I feel really fortunate that I have been able to support myself and raise my kids in this field, maybe not always by selling work but by teaching by making a product but always being in the field and interacting with people in the field, although I will say I'm kind of a loner I don't belong to quilt groups. I am now a member of the Alliance [The Alliance for American Quilts.].

LR: Good.

SLB: I am a member of a craft organization in California, it is called the Baulines Craft Guild.

LR: Could you talk a minute about that.

SLB: Yeah, it is about thirty years old I think. It started in Marin, sort of in and around the town of Bolinas, which is not spelled the same way as Baulines and basically furniture makers got together and they would have these little shows locally and Art Carpenter who has passed away in the last few years was one of the early members of the group and he was a furniture maker and he also started having apprentices and so that was sort of, at that time, also furniture makers can have apprentices a lot easier than other crafts people, especially fiber people I think, unless you are weaver. You have to have your business has to work a certain way to have an apprentice and it is kind of a natural thing for woodworkers to have apprentices and so the guild got a little more formal and started getting more members and having an apprentice program. Off and on over the years I have worked as the bookkeeper, as the office manager, different jobs in the group itself and we took on clay, glass, metal workers, jewelers, some fiber people, not too many fiber people, and we have an office in San Rafael and we have, we try to have this apprentice program. Times are changing, things are, people are, goods are different, people's ideas are different, what people want to surround themselves in their home is different than it was in the sixties, the seventies, the eighties, even in the nineties and so it has been a little difficult for a lot of people. Crafts people who are friends of mine. The reason why I joined the group or initially was, because I wanted to be around people, and don't take this in the wrong way, who were not quilters. I wanted to be inspired and share different kinds of things with people who did other kinds of work and it was very inspiring for me to be around woodworkers and people who worked in clay and people who worked in metal, because I like antiques and I like forms and I like shapes and I love old houses. It just sort of went with it in my mind and where I am a quilter and I have a lot of friends who are quiltmakers. I just wanted to be in another world too and so that was really the reason why I joined the group. In order to be a member of the group you have to be juried in and it is called being a Master Member, and so the group does exhibits, we have some kinds of educational exhibits, some are purely just made up of the members. For several years we did, we put on an exhibit in San Francisco called California Design that was first started by Eudora Moore in southern California and it was, we did it as a juried show of California craftspeople trying to get the best of crafts in one place and then having a professional exhibit. The group is ongoing and it has little less than a hundred members. I still find it stimulating to be around these people who do something totally other than what I do.

LR: What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?

SLB: It depends on what their goal is. For me it is wanting to sell my work and it is becoming increasingly difficult because I don't think that the people who are up and coming into the marketplace as buyers, consumers, understand or appreciate or even desire the kind of work that I produce personally. I think if you are trying to sell your work I think it is becoming increasingly difficult. Tell me your question again, because I got off.

LR: Biggest challenge.

SLB: Biggest challenge. For some people I just think it is just trying to show their work, for some people it is trying to decide what they are going to do with their work when they die. I turned seventy this [last.] year and so I have a closet full of beautiful work that is in fabulous condition and I need to deal with what I'm going to do with that work, where am I going to put it. Surely my two children aren't going to be able to, they are not going to actually have a place to take care of it, so that is a challenge for me. I think for some people who are starting out in quiltmaking I think it is like what direction to go in, what to learn, now there is so much to learn, I mean there was a lot to learn when I started, it was a little less, there was a little more of a straight line. I can look at old quilts and still kind of connect myself with them, although I never really made in my whole life a quilt that looked like something perhaps my grandmother might have made, although she didn't ever. I think the challenge for today's quiltmakers is where to go, what to do. To kind of pull back and have a focus.

LR: We have just barely two minutes left. Is there anything else in particular that you would like to add that we haven't.

SLB: Le, I would really like to say that I feel really, I feel so honored and so fortunate to be involved in this whole, in this industry for forty years and to have been able to do what I've done. Meet the people, and have my experiences. Thank you.

LR: Sonya Lee Barrington, your whole name, I would like to thank you for allowing me to interview you today as part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. We are in San Francisco and our interview was concluded at 11:10 a.m. and it is February 19, 2008.

SLB: Thank you.

[interview ends.]



“Sonya Lee Barrington,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 21, 2024,