Kathi Babcock




Kathi Babcock


Kathi Babcock learned how to quilt from a book she got when she was about 19 or 20 around the time of the bicentennial. Her mother taught her how to sew on and she views her quilting as an extension of that. She led the group that made the quilt she brought which they made for the Marquis Lafayette’s birthday. It hug in the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum in Washington, D.C, and the Musée de Toile de Jouy in France.




Christine Sparta


Kathi Babcock


Phyllis Jordan

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Kay Schroeder


Houston, Texas


Alana Zaskowski


**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.** 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.

Phyllis Jordan (PJ): This is Phyllis Jordan, today's date is November the 5th, 2001; the time is 4:17 and I'm conducting an interview with Kathi Babcock, Kathi with an "I" for Quilters' S.O.S.-Save Our Stories, a project of the Alliance for American Quilts. Kathi and I are at the International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas. Kathi, will you tell me about the quilt you brought today?

Kathi Babcock (KB): Yes ma'am. In 2006 or 2007 our town received an invitation to make a quilt for an exhibit that would be hung in Lafayette, Louisiana in honor of the Marquis Lafayette's 250th birthday or something, I think it was 250. They sent out invitations to towns that had names associated with Lafayette because he did this triumphal tour and apparently a lot of cities in the United States ended up being named after him. I live in La Grange in Fayette county [Texas.] and La Grange was the name of Lafayette's château in France and so we're kind of a double whammy that our town and our county are named for Lafayette. One of the girls in town got really excited about the idea and our town ended up contributing three quilts to the exhibit. I captained this one. There were other people in the group that made blocks but I primarily designed, built, and quilted it and it was exhibited at that exhibit in Lafayette, Louisiana and after that exhibit, it was chosen to go on to, it went to France and it went to six museums in France included the Musée de Toile de Jouy, you know Toile where it was originally made and at that time if you looked on their website, this was the quilt they picked for their website and when that six months was over as it traveled, it came back to the United States and the DAR Museum in Washington, D.C. picked the exhibit up. So it hung at the DAR Museum for a few months before it finally came home to me. It doesn't belong to me, but it's mine and I think I got more than my fifteen minutes of fame out of this one so when they asked us to pick something that represented us, I guess I liked this one best.

PJ: Well this has a special meaning, is there anything else you could tell us about it?

KB: About this particular quilt?

PJ: Right.

KB: The guild voted because it belongs to them because I didn't pay for the fabric. Since Karey Bresenhan has built her museum in our town, La Grange, Texas, they voted that we would give it to her to be something that perhaps someday might be hung at that museum and I wasn't at the meeting that day, or I would've said, "No, I think you should give it to me," and yes that's where it's going to go so it's still at my house waiting to be presented to Karey who will become its future owner, or the museum will become its future owner I guess.

PJ: Someone looking at this quilt would conclude what about you and your group?

KB: One of the things they would conclude about me is that medallion quilts are kind of my favorite form because I have trouble seeing a whole quilt at once but I can build it row by row by row so I like starting with the center and kind of building out from there and both this and my quilt that is in Lone Stars Three are done on a medallion format. Probably a lot of what I do is. I also work primarily in kind of a nineteenth century color pallet. I like reproduction fabrics. I tried to carry out the theme of Lafayette and Washington, I did use a lot of things that weren't, but I think it still has that flavor. I have old taste maybe.

PJ: You said, is it hanged, how do you use this quilt? Is it hanging in your home right now?

KB: I have an antique fruit ladder, you know an apple orchard ladder in my living room, and it's been, since it came back from it's triumphal tour, it's been hanging there in the living room because I know my time with it is short so I have several places in my house that will accommodate different sized quilts. There's a rod in the dining room that I switch out with quilts of a certain size and the larger ones either hang above my bed or over the fruit ladder in the living room and I rotate them as I get tired of looking at them and want to see something else. This has been there because I know one day I won't get to have it anymore, so I've been enjoying it.

PJ: We know what your plans are for this quilt, when you designed this quilt, did you design from the inside and go out?

KB: Yes. The center was in a drawer, because I'd made it at a workshop on how to do a mariners compass from some famous quilter that came and did a workshop and the day that we were going to make the quilt, we were going to send to the Lafayette exhibit, there were too many women trying to work on one project and the organizer wasn't organized and I got a little frustrated at the lack of organization and probably because I wasn't in control, so I went home, get this center that was just languishing in a drawer and said, "Let's make something to go around this." We started brainstorming. The theme of the quilt was, the theme of the exhibit was to be the friendship of Lafayette and Washington and so we started doing the whole friendship star and you know, what kind of blocks can we come up with that will follow that theme. So yes, it was built from the inside out.

PJ: Let's go back to talking about you. Tell us about your interest in quiltmaking.

KB: Okay. I've always sewn, always. I sew on the little Featherweight that my mom bought when I was an infant to start making children's clothes and curtains and things. So quilting was just an extension of other sewing, you sew two pieces of fabric together the same way you make pants, and I was in college during those, that whole bicentennial-type time period that magazines had all started showing quilts hung behind your sofa and you know, it just kind of created an awareness that I hadn't been as aware of. I got a couple of books for Christmas one year and started making olive green and gold corduroy quilt patterned pillows and kind of went from there. I was nineteen or twenty and simultaneously started a hand pieced grandmother's flower garden, because that's what people start with and hand appliquéd Baltimore album that I wasn't aware was a Baltimore album because that vocabulary I'm not sure had even been invented yet in 1965, '75 .That was kind of it. I got married when I was young and poor and you can't knit anymore because you can't afford yarn and you can't buy those cool embroidery kits that I used to buy because you can't afford those, but you could afford fifty cent a yard fabric off that remnant table because you were supposed to make quilts out of remnants right? You weren't supposed to buy new fabric, so buying fabric was cheating, but remnants, that made it okay. I could afford that. If you pieced by hand you were pretty slow, so you know quilting was a craft that I could do because I knew how to sew and I could afford no matter what.

PJ: Did you learn from one particular person how to quilt?

KB: No. I got a book for Christmas and I muddled through. I learned that bias is tricky [laughs.] I learned that polyester's a problem. I learned that when you try to layer things for appliqué if you put a dark fabric under a light fabric you can see it and it doesn't look good. You know, you just learn how to cope with bias and how to deal with shadowing and not to use sheets as your backing fabric, you know you just evolve over time because I didn't just make a quilt and sit back, I started making quilts like crazy. You just learn as you go along.

PJ: How many hours a week do you estimate you quilt?

KB: My friend asked me that after she saw that question on the list and I said, "Hm, maybe ten," she looked at me and said, "No you don't," it's like, "Okay, I'll think about that, twenty to forty." [laughs.] I don't know it depends, it depends on what else is going on that week. The girls meet on Tuesdays and that's at least six hours that we sit and--

PJ: The girls are?

KB: The quilting girls in La Grange [Texas.] we go to the Second Baptist Church and we sew for three hours talking as fast as we can and then we stop and eat lunch then we sew for another three hours talking as fast as we can. So every Tuesday that's you know, that's one day, that's six and a couple hours every night while you watch TV and it all starts adding up.

PJ: Do you have a memory of your first quilt?

KB: Well yeah, my first two quilts were the grandmother's flower garden and the Baltimore album, neither of which have ever been finished, but that's okay. The top of the flower garden is done and it's half quilted, but it's the ugliest quilt known to man and I used some of the remnants to make a car seat for my daughter and when I washed it, one of the fabrics completely disappeared, so one of the fabrics that I used in the quilt is self disintegrating and so I was always a little worried about finishing it after that because, kind of like an antique quilt that the fabrics just. Well this one when first washing it's just going to be gone, and will kind of ruin the effect of a quilt, so I've always threatened my kids that when they graduated from college or something they were going to get that quilt as a gift, but I never made good with that threat.

PJ: Are there any other quiltmakers among your family?

KB: My mother started quilting after me kind of I was doing it she started doing it. Apparently my great-great-grandmother was quite the quilter and she lived in a very small town in Missouri and lived in the big house in town, it was the combination of her home and the funeral parlor, and you know it was a big house and so she had a room that was large enough that you could leave a quilt frame set up in, so that's where all the ladies in town went. I grew up under my great-grandmother's quilts because they were considered utility quilts because no one in our family valued them. They weren't utility quilts, they were very nicely done quilts, but both my mother and my grandmother considered it a homemade quilt, you know something that the help used rather than the family used, so they were a little bit embarrassed by them. We just, we used them and washed them and used them and washed them and you know some of my earliest memories are the double wedding ring that was on my bed and trying to play games with the patterns of how many of these reds can I find and how many blues and is there another arc somewhere in the quilt that's exactly like this arc and I just, I think quilts are wonderful and I think I always have. Maybe it's in the blood.

PJ: How does quiltmaking impact your family?

KB: Well there's economically [laughs.] especially after I buy the longarm that I plan to this week. I live, breathe and eat quilts. I go to quilt shows, I hang out with quilting people, I have quilts hanging in my house. We have a quilt museum now that's four blocks away from mine so I am docent and assistant volunteer at that. Since at this point in time it's just my husband and I that live at my house that pretty much has an impact. My children sleep under quilts in their homes in the states where they live, so I create an impact further away. My granddaughter sent me a card, she's almost six, for Halloween and inside it said, "I love you, Grandma. I love you, Grandma, pajama girl, you are the best quilter." So as she thinks of me, that's obviously one of the adjectives that she uses to describe me, even when nobody's brought it up. I think when you do something as much as I do quilting, it has an impact [laughs.] I was at the bank a couple of weeks ago, for my church, arranging for monies to be transferred from one place to another and in the middle of doing all of this the lady looked at me and she said, "Oh, you're the quilter," because I live in a little town and you know after we've had a fair, after we've had a quilt show, and the pictures go in the paper, my picture's in the paper. I, it's kind of part of my aura now. I like that.

PJ: Tell us, have you ever used quilts to get through a difficult time?

KB: Probably not. I, for the last twenty-five years I've always quilted, so whether I was going through difficult times or good times I was using quilting, so not specifically, no.

PJ: Tell us about an amusing experience that has occurred from your quiltmaking or your teaching.

KB: That's one of those thing you would have had to prime me for in advance, because I'm not just thinking of anything.

PJ: You would like to pass and we'll get back to it if you think of something?

KB: If I think of something, that's a good idea.

PJ: Okay. What do you find pleasing about quiltmaking?

KB: I like a lot of things. I like, even if I did it in a vacuum, obviously I like fabric. I like pattern. I like the process. I'm a little bit of a A.D.D. kind of girl, I have a lot of energy and I've always, I've always used things like knitting or things as a way of calming myself down. I watch television better if I have something in my hands because otherwise I hop up and down a lot. The social aspects have been a whole another wonderful part of it, I do a lot of internet friendship group type things that have been a lot of fun. You come to festival in Houston [Texas.] and you meet up with the lady from Australia that you've been chatting with online for years and she introduces you to this lady from England that she's friends with and so that sort of friendship. The accolades are not too bad when quilts are for picked up for exhibits and you know, you get that call from Karey Bresenhan that says that your quilt is going to be in the book. Those kind of things have been, have been a lot of fun. If it wasn't the quilting itself, the manipulating of fabric, the seeing what it looks like when you put those colors together, if that part wasn't fun, then the rest of it wouldn't follow.

PJ: What aspects of quiltmaking do you not enjoy?

KB: Putting on a sleeve [laughs.] I pretty much like all of it. I think I always want to be done right after I start and so sometimes, sometimes the lag time as you get something done is a little hard to put up with but I like pretty much all of it.

PJ: You said you belong to a group that meets at the Baptist church; do you have any other groups that you belong to?

KB: La Grange [Texas.] is a very, for the size of the town La Grange [Texas.] is it's a multi-town guild in La Grange [Texas.] that I belong to and have had some [inaudible.] since I've been in that particular town and I've sought out guilds as I've moved. My husband was in the army so we did a little bit of that. The little Tuesday group is just kind of a social group, from the larger guild.

PJ: Have advances in technology influenced your work, and if so, how?

KB: Well, you know the first stuff I did, I cut templates out of the bottom of a Kleenex box and traced with a ink pen because I didn't even know about things like pigmas so I, it's come a long way baby. I have a longarm in my living room and I prefer machine quilting to handquilting because I can make more and make more faster, so technology has had a lot to do with it. I love machine quilting and I don't think anybody can look at some of the amazing quilts that are here and go, "Oh that's machine quilted, oh no it's not really a quilt unless it's hand quilted." It just, the technological perfection that you can achieve, it just, I think machine quilting is wonderful and so I like, I embrace technology even though I use the sewing machine that my mom bought as I was born as my machine piece of sewing equipment. I still like, that's still technology right? It's not a needle and thread; I'm not much of a handwork girl.

PJ: What are your favorite techniques and materials?

KB: I'm pretty much a reproduction fabric, I'm a nineteenth century old time girl and although I did just say I don't do much handwork, I love hand applique. I think the best quilts combine a little bit of applique and a little bit of piecing because I think it just, it's kind of like curves need straight lines to compliment them I think. I think the piecing and the appliqué go really well together and the more you put into a quilt, the more interesting it is. I pretty much machine quilter, I like things small, part of that is because you know that whole turning twenty type quilt pattern that you can finish in a day. At the rate I sew, if I sewed like that, I'd have more quilts than I knew what to do with. So I've had to slow down and start getting smaller and more intricate and try to, try to strive for something that's technically difficult and a little bit, a little bit hard just to kind of slow down so that I'm not producing a quilt every three months. After a while, it really does become a question, "What are you going to do with that one?"

PJ: Describe how your studio or your family or the place that you create?

KB: Well I live in an old house, 1894, and back then they built houses, my style of house, has a parlor and a living room and I sew in the parlor, which is basically a large room that doesn't have a closet, so it doesn't have a bedroom, right? It's got my longarm on one side and it's got an armoire with quilts piled in one corner and it's got my desk with my sewing machine on the other and it's got the roll-top desk with a computer on the other side and it's pretty well stuffed to the gills with fabric. It's not tidy, you will never see it tidy I promise and there's always at least three projects going on and it's draped over poles and piled here and it's chaotic and that's how I work.

PJ: Tell us how you balance your time.

KB: Well I don't have a job. I don't have to work because I'm well taken care of by a spouse who's doing that for me so I don't have to balance a work life. I, if there's a volunteer organization in town, my name's on their list so I balance my life pretty much like everybody else does. There's the things you got to do and there's the things you want to do and you try and squeeze as many want to do's into the what you got to do's as you do, and my husband knows that there's not going to be a hot cooked meal every night for dinner and that at lunch he's on his own and I sew as much as I can.

PJ: Do you use a design wall?

KB: Rarely. The room that I sew in has seven windows, a door, and pocket doors that no longer open to anything but it still cuts the room up and there's no wall space for a design wall. My longarm's in the room and the closest I come to being able to have a design wall is that I hang things off the pole that stretches across it. I have a homemade little accordion thing that I can fold out if I'm doing something with blocks that I really need to be careful, but usually it's just the floor. You know, I've tried like drawing things out and using design walls and things, and maybe it's because I never plan far enough ahead, you know I'm always just kind of the next border, the next six inches, I've never, I don't have one so I can't use one and I don't think that way because I don't think far enough in advance.

PJ: What do you think makes a great quilt?

KB: Good design. We talk about that a lot as we walk around festival and like a quilt. Then there's some that look good up close and there's some that look good far away and there's some that are both and I think that's a key element that it has to look good both ways. That the fabrics that are used have to speak to you when you get up close enough to start noticing the details and the overall design of it. It has to look good enough when you step back away and you don't see the small details that you like both. I have this thing about quilts that are flat, I know that the workmanship that does into it shows in that overall flatness of a quilt and so when they hang straight and true, that always makes my heart sing. I appreciate a well hand quilted quilt. I appreciate a well machine quilted quilt. These Japanese ladies with their taupes and their intricate details, wow, those are pretty awesome. You know even when I go into areas that I don't appreciate quite as much, like art quilts, I still think that good design, use of color, balanced imagery, I think all of that I could appreciate those as well.

PJ: What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection?

KB: Well, gosh special collections could be a whole different thing because I can understand a special collection being representing a certain period of time, and so anything that fell into that certain period of time would be appropriate, no matter how ugly or poorly made, I mean if that's what you're collecting. I think a museum piece would need to be something that, that spoke maybe to the greatest number of people. I've never understood opera, myself, and I think there are a lot of us out there, and I think in the same way that there are some art quilts that are so poorly understood or appreciated by, or may be appreciated by a smaller segment of the person who would be coming to see a museum that, it seems to me that a work that anybody coming in off the street, whether they were a quilter or quilt aficionado or just a museum go-er, would be able to look at and say, "Wow," would be the best kind of quilts to include. My quilts, those would be the good, no [laughs.]

PJ: [laughs.]

KB: In a museum, I'd love it. It was, it was, it was at the DAR. I mean when they called, you know when they call you up and they say, "Would it be alright if we used your quilt," it's like, "Oh yeah, oh yeah."

PJ: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

KB: Gosh. It's changed over the years. In my, in my, in the early nineties when I discovered that there were stores that sold quilt fabric, oh my goodness, and I gave up life as I know it to do quilting pretty much around the clock. I checked out every book that the library had and I was a giant Jinny Beyer fan, she was doing neat things with border prints and mitered corners and I wanted to be Jinny Beyer when I grew up. Then I went through a phase that I was pretty folk arty and red wagon and Linda Brannock and Jan Patek were my heroes. I think I've pretty much come along and I think it's a narrowed focus but it's also a comfort zone, I like antique quilts and I like, and so I probably am not so much focused anymore on any particular maker or artist as I am on antique quilts and some of the things that people are replicating and that sort of design style. I'm looking at each state has had it's quilt days and they come up with a book from those days, those are probably more of what I collect and buy in terms of books than specific authors or quilters.

PJ: Do your quilts reflect your community or your region?

KB: Nope, nope [laughs.] My part of town, the ladies that I quilt with, no one is interested in doing reproduction-y stuff. I'm not mainstream in that way at all. I had to; I've kind of found my comfort, my circle of friends, my peers in the international community through the internet more than through my part of the world.

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

KB: Well, gosh I don't know. Are quilts important in American life? They're, I think, I think it's important that we preserve any heritage that we have. I'm glad that quilts continue to grow in value and are recognized as an art form and not just the way my family regarded our family quilts as just you know, useful. I'm glad that they're popular enough that somebody decided they needed to put a museum in La Grange, Texas. But if there's somebody out there that doesn't think they're very important, that's okay with me too.

PJ: In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history in America?

KB: I think that women in America have been given the roll of provider of for the home and so we did the sewing, we did the practical tasks of the home and I think it's wonderful to see how just providing for the home some women did more than just sew a few pieces of fabric together to keep their family warm, but did elevate it. Unfortunately those tended to be the women who had the means, who had the free time that could spend it doing that.

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

KB: I'm sorry the first answer that comes to my head is finding enough storage space to stash their fabrics.

PJ: [laughs.]

KB: [laughs.] Took an Australian lady through my house yesterday and she asked me where my fabric was [laughs.] I was like, "Well, pick a room," [laughs.] "It's everywhere." I think keeping it fresh, keeping it interesting, I think that all crafts go through a saturation phase, you know I had a grandmother that did needlepoint after a while, all needlepoints started to kind of look the same and every surface in her house was covered in a needlepointed something or other and you kind of ran out of room for your craft. I think that to attract younger people and to keep the people that are doing it still interested, you need teachers that are coming up with new ideas and fabric makers that, you know if the only fabric that was being made was reproduction fabric, I think that we would be losing quilters by the drove so you know, even what I like. I think continually, kind of recreating it in and of itself and there's been kind of a little bit more emphasis it seems lately in the smaller things, like bags and accessory type quilting projects as opposed to making a quilt. I think that's good. I think you know a little bit of something for everybody.

PJ: We've covered most of the questions on this. Is there anything else that you would like to have added to this?

KB: I think it's wonderful that there is a forum like Save Our Stories. I don't know that Kathi Babcock is the person whose quilts need to be in the Library of Congress but there are people that are going to be interviewed through this process that people will some day be researching and it will be good to have their words recorded. I think making that history available is a wonderful thing and I'm glad that that was a component of this book and festival this year and it continues to be a part of it.

PJ: Well I'd like to thank Kathi Babcock, with a "I," for allowing me to interview her today for the Quilter's S.O.S.-Save Our Stories oral history project. Our interview concluded at 4:54.



“Kathi Babcock,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 18, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/51.