Amy Milne (AM): We are rolling. And this is Amy Milne. Thank you for joining us. Thank you. Today’s date is Thursday, October 20th and it is 12:23 p.m. And I’m conducting an interview with Holice Turnbow for Quilters’ S.O.S. – Save Our Stories, a project of the Alliance for American Quilts. Holice and I are at the Georgia Quilt Show in Duluth, Georgia and happy to be here.
Holice Turnbow (HT): Yes. Absolutely.
AM: And let me make sure all my little bars are going so I won’t be paranoid. Holice, you brought a quilt and a cape with you today. Will you tell us about them?
HT: Yes. I think one of the defining points in my quilt career was a project that was started back in the early nineties in which a company asked me if it was possible to preprint a whole cloth quilt in its full size in an ink that washes out. My answer was of course, ‘Yes, if you have the technology.’ So we started the project and I had to learn how to draw, literally, because while I’d had Art, I’d never drawn about this. So there was a whole series that were printed. Then there got to be a point in which I was honored by being asked by the group that did the Bernina fashion show and that was a show of quilting garments that traveled around the country, so I was asked to do that so I designed the cape based on a preprinted quilt design that I’d designed from a quilt in the Smithsonian because back in the nineties, you know, when the furor was going on about reproducing quilts in China, I had read an article that said that this protest was going on and the Smithsonian was interested in changing their focus because they were the ones that were contracting. So I called them and I said, ‘Would you be interested in having your whole cloth reproduced here in the United States and they said, ‘Yes.’ And so this particular design on the cape that I used as inspiration was from a quilt in the Smithsonian’s collection based on a christening quilt of about 1842. So I took the basic motifs off that and used it for that fashion show and I have to admit that when I saw the show, even as magnificent as I thought my piece was, it was rather dull because you can imagine the flamboyant kind of garments that the other needle workers made. But I was very pleased and I consider that probably my crowning achievement in quilting. It’s all machine quilted, silk pongee base with rayon thread. This also happened about the time that I was really becoming comfortable with machine quilting and come to the conclusion that machine quilting was okay, now that I could do it. The second piece is one that I have recently designed and I have been playing around with primary colors and it’s a design based on the traditional giant dahlia design but reducing the number of points in it to make it a little bit easier so I could find the gradations of color. Most of my work is quite simple but occasionally I do branch out and do something a little bit more complicated and the difference in this and most medallion quilts like this you see, is the way the points come together in that if you look at it closely they come together in a curve and I have not found any instructions, any pattern that describes that particular process and it’s been a chore to figure out the technique and the mechanism for doing that. Finally I believe I did. I did a second one and I still had a hole in the middle so I just turned that sucker over and just wrapped some thread around it and tied it closed. So sometimes you have to take drastic measures to achieve the results you want. But, the other design worked, I try to be a little more complicated but I still stay relatively simple and this has the three primary, three secondary colors and then the four gradations within those colors. So that’s what these are. And these two pieces on the front of the table are examples of the whole cloth preprinted quilts that were done in the washout ink and are still available. So I think that this was probably one of the crowning points in my particular quiltmaking which is strictly a design project. There have been others along the road and it’s been a case of being in the right place at the right time and so forth.
AM: Are these quilts, are they in your collection now? And the cape? Or are they borrowed for this–
HT: Oh no, these are mine. These are in my collection. And the collection, if I can anticipate your question, is mostly what I have collected are the whole cloth, white on white type quilts because I have done several of these, probably two dozen in all, designs, and I have used the old quilts and patterns and motifs on those, as inspiration for the quilt. In fact this one on the top was based on a quilt that I bought from a dealer who had a lot of quilts from North England and the motifs in this are very much in the style of the quiltmakers of northern England. I thought initially it was Welsh but found that it wasn’t but it was more representative of the northern English type with the feathers whereas the Welsh quilts, their white work designs or their whole cloth designs were more geometric in their construction than this was. So what I would do is sometimes with the dealer, or I’ve even bought them off the Internet, I would buy a quilt that had certain motifs that I could then expand on for this. I mentioned the fact that I really had to learn how to draw and the first ones that were done, the company purchased the designs from designers out in the West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland area, primarily Mennonite quilters because they were well known for the white work designs, the brides’ quilts that we see and I was copying their designs and with one designer, Lydia Ann Beery who lived in northern Virginia, she gave me her design after we’d arranged all the legal matters, and so it was really copying her work. So I was sitting there one day doing this, drawing these feathers and I say to myself, ‘I’ve done this before but I don’t believe in reincarnation,’ and suddenly it occurred to me: elementary penmanship. So I realized then that through life we learn things and we learn skills that we don’t know that we’re learning, that we later bring up into whatever our craft and skill is. It’s just like the way I started quilting. Many years ago, back into the sixties, we bought our first house and of course back in those days when you moved into a development, the first three people who appeared at your door was the paper boy, the milkman and an insurance agent. And so when the insurance agent came, and was talking about my plan and did I have social security, and I said, ‘Well, no, I work for the federal government. I don’t need social security. He said, ‘Maybe your wife and kids would.’ How do you get it? You become self-employed. So I started teaching needlework as an art form because I was raised in a house full of women who knew how to do all that thing and when that happens, when you’re raised that, you learn things you don’t know you’re learning. So I could crochet and of course that was back in the days when boys were called sissies if they did that. On the other hand I have an aunt that kept beating in our heads that you better learn how to sew on buttons and wash your clothes because you may never have a wife to do it. So I learned those things and so I was teaching needlework as an art form and this was in the early seventies and one day I get a call from the director and she said, ‘Do you know anything about quiltmaking?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ Now you notice she didn’t ask me if I could do it. Because as a kid I played under the quilt. I watched it. I knew the process. And that was when the first major exhibit of quilts as folk art was traveling the country. Jonathan Holstein and Gail [van der Hoof.] were doing that and sitting out in the rotunda of the museum were these women from the National Quilting Association. So I go up and say, ‘I got a problem.’ ‘What is it?’ ‘I need to teach. I know the process but I’ve never put it together in a constructive form.’ And so I got started and at a time before it was cool for a man to quilt. And then over the years there have been really stair steps that have brought things. The first quilting event in Washington D.C., I was very prominent in that, doing the announcements, getting invitations, was invited by the Postal Service in the state of West Virginia to be part of the issuance of the postage stamp in 1978 to commemorate quilting. I got my name in the magazines. Then the white work project. Then the Hoffman Challenge came along, which was accidental. So there have been a lot of those things that has brought me along and now there are just men all over the place quilting. I’ve been shuttled to the back now.
AM: Well, I was going to ask if you had been approached by other young male quilters or just beginning male quilters who sought you out as a mentor. Or had questions for you.
HT: In a limited amount of way. Because in the last I would say five years, male quilters have started emerging. Back in the seventies there were really five of us who were out on the show circuit and prominent. And I was fortunate to be one of those early people. And we didn’t find then an influence or presence of men in quilting until probably I would say, the last five years, they started coming out and being more identified with quilting. Many have approached it from an art standpoint. Artists that have changed the media that they have worked with. And now there’s an Internet site called Quilt Guy, there’s one called Man Quilter, and men who have kind of come together on the Internet and now those on Quilt Guy, we have our own retreats. No women allowed. We’ve had about six retreats now and it’s fascinating to be there and see the work that the men are doing and they range from very traditional to very art-type quilts. Just depends on what their background has been. And I’m out there now pounding the streets telling people that we have good male teachers, designers, quilters, and we should have a bigger presence. You women no longer should be in charge. [laughs.]
AM: Shhhh. Just kidding. Are there any folks in your family who were quilting, like you said you grew up in a household with folks who were sewing. Are family members still quilting?
HT: Yes, I have a sister who is very prolific as a hand quilter. It seems that it almost jumped, not a generation but a period of time. I had aunts who quilted and a grandmother who quilted constantly during the winter time and of course those were the days before there was central heat and you covered with quilts. You had to have them to keep warm. Utility quilts. They did not do fancy work. And then there was that period of time in which the general population was not quilting and they had moved from the farm into town and there was just not a place and in my family it did not emerge again until the seventies when I started and then my sister is probably the most active. I visited a sister and a niece down south of Atlanta, Ga., the other day and gave my niece a little private lesson because she said she wanted to start and I don’t know what the future will be as far as the family is concerned. I do have a granddaughter who is an artist but she hasn’t gravitated to the quilting, although she works with my daughter in the Stencil Company, which is her company.
AM: So we asked some questions before the interview to try to guide what questions we choose during the interview and you said in the questions before that you don’t sleep under a quilt.
AM: So are the quilts that you make, your quilts, are they exclusively for the wall at this point in your quiltmaking?
HT: Yes, they are. I do quilts as decorations for the house. I did make a full bed quilt, but it’s a show quilt, you know, it’s one that I don’t really put on the bed. Although, I have two beds in the house that do have older quilts on them. But they’re in the guest rooms, so I don’t personally sleep under them. But mostly what I do now are the wallhangings if I need a piece for the house. And I do a lot of charity quilts, more specific things that are used as raffle quilts for benefits and auctions. But then I also do a lot of very simple things that I donate to the hospital. In fact two years ago, I met my goal of one hundred in the year. But these are so simple that they can be made in three hours. It’s just interesting fabric on top, sandwiched together, machine quilted–remember I said machine quilting is okay now that I can do it? And it’s faster. Just quilted down about every four inches and put a binding on it. But interesting fabrics. I’ve discovered over the years that you don’t have to be fancy to be good and have something good looking. It’s all in the fabric that you selected. If you select interesting fabric, you can make squares and it’s going to look really good.
AM: Describe so that we can envision what your studio is like, what the place you make quilts looks like.
HT: Have you ever gone out to see the junk pile at the city dumpster? Do I need to say anything else? Well, not really. There are shelves there, there is some organization, but I tend when I’m working to make kits and things for classes, that the excess goes on the floor. There are boxes all over the place with what’s in it written on it but I know where things are. Except there’s some things that it’s easier to go out and buy again than it is to look for it. It takes less time.
AM: I’ve had that experience myself. I know that you also–I read this and you told me–that you were the founder, or the co-founder of the Hoffman Quilt challenge.
AM: Can you talk about that a little bit?
HT: Yes. In nineteen and eighty-seven, I was at the National Quilting Association show in Easton, Pennsylvania and my friend was across the aisle. Her name is Betty Boyink and she lived in Michigan and was a rather prolific book author and teacher. I describe Betty, and I’ve done this to her face, as her style was Grandmother’s Flower Garden pastel fan. So I look across the aisle and Betty is standing there holding this bolt of very bold Indian Oriental fabric. Very bright orange, persimmons, blues, etc. And so we kind of joke and I say, ‘Betty, what are you doing with that?’ She said well she saw it in a booth, she recognized that it was not her type of fabric but she was intrigued by it and the vendor said, now I want to emphasize the vendor said she considered it the ugliest piece of cloth she’d ever had in her shop because she’d had it three months and only sold a half yard. And went ahead to say it was from Hoffman of California and she bought every piece Hoffman made. Now you can tell what time period it was because we can no longer do that. So we joked about it and we went about our business, had customers, so I looked over about thirty minutes later, Betty was still there contemplating that fabric. I say, ‘I’ll get you out of your misery. Go buy a couple of yards, bring a couple of yards to me, we’ll make something and come back next year and show each other what we’ve done. So we did. So at the end of the day she asked me if I had anything for show and tell and I said, ‘No. I don’t have anything to make and I don’t want to tell about it if I did.’ So she said, ‘Well let’s take our challenge and tell about it.’ So we practiced in the parking lot, put our fabric in brown paper bags. We got to the stage, made sure we were last on the program, and it had been a dull show and tell. We saw lots of Grandmother’s Flower Garden pillows that night. So, we get up there and tell it back dramatically just like it happened. At the end people cheered. I could have sold my fabric ten times on the way to the seat. We kind of forgot about it, went about our business. Next morning, we discovered there was a line of people waiting to get into the vendor hall. They rushed to this vendor, bought all she had, because we’d said, ‘Why don’t you buy a piece of this fabric which has been considered difficult to use?’ They bought all she had, she went to the phone, called Hoffman and bought two more bolts and sold all that before the end of the show. So we decided we had something going and so we decided we’d set a rule and maybe next year we’d ask people to send in what they had and we would show them at the next year’s show. I decided I’d better call Hoffman and tell them and ask them if they still had the fabric. So I called, I didn’t know the people, this person, there was a pause at the other end and she said, ‘We’re sure glad you called us because we want you to know we don’t make no ugly fabric out here. Because shops have been calling us, asking for the bolt of ugly fabric.’ I got that cleared away and we found that it was last season’s fabric, but we got through that year and got 93 pieces. So we formalized it, continued on, the height of it was the tenth year in which we got over 850 entries and the only prize that you got for it was the first prize in each category was three yards of Hoffman fabric and a special pin. Only those who made the quilt got the pin. Second prize was two yards, third prize was one. What was happening is people who were unknown, all over the country were entering and getting their quilt traveling and those quilts left and there were three groups of 40 each, a clothing exhibit and a doll exhibit. They left and never returned. They never saw them again until the end of the year. And yet thousands of people were seeing my quilt and I’m unknown and people would travel miles to come to see their quilt hanging. It’s still going on over 25 years. So the interesting thing about it is this piece of fabric did not really match the coordinates that they’d done with it because it was much brighter in color but yet I found out that Philip Hoffman had insisted that this color way be done. No one else in the company wanted it. The designers, the merchandisers or anything. But yet, he said, ‘I want that fabric.’ They were not promoting it but all of a sudden the world wants it. So they told me that he walked into the office and calmly said, ‘I told you so.’ Just one of the little trivias about it. But it’s been a phenomenon, still going, and it’s an exhibit really, of the ordinary quilter. Rarely see people there whose name is prominent and that’s the pleasure in it. And especially if you have a young person or a child because when we were doing it we’d make sure that any child or real young person got their quilt to travel.
AM: That’s so cool. I’d like to ask you what you think makes a great quilt.
HT: The first thing is good workmanship. I look at that first. Of course I think many of us think about dynamic design but yet excellent workmanship of a simple design is also a great quilt. And that’s why that I really emphasize the basic skills that are needed to do that. Not because there’s someone looking over your shoulder with a book of rules but yet if you do things properly, correctly, and precisely, think about how much time that saves that you don’t have to rip out and re-do, because it’s just like a jigsaw puzzle, it has to fit together. So I think a great quilt has to start with good workmanship and then the design is next, that needs to hold together into a whole that you don’t suddenly see three pieces of something there. Color, I’m not so fixed on that because the color is the quiltmaker’s choice, it’s not mine. And there was obviously a logical reason for selecting that. I may not like the combination but yet the quiltmaker had a purpose for that and so when it comes to color, it’s do those values carry out the theme which I see in the quilt? So that’s one of the things, but again the workmanship. I judged a show in northern New York about three years ago that I was absolutely excited at the number of just ordinary quilts that were extremely well made. They were comfort quilts.
AM: Are there any quilters or artists or people that inspire your work?
HT: That’s really a tough one because all of those quiltmakers whom I admire do the kinds of quilts that I’ll never want to do because I don’t want to take the time to do it. But I do try to understand what they do and how they do it especially as it affects my judging, you know, when I’m judging. But the thing that’s beginning to inspire me is what we’re reading about, the whole modern quilt movement, because that’s going back to the simplicity of quiltmaking which is really what I enjoy doing. And a lot of people have stashes of fabric, well my stash are five-yard cuts of fabric and bolts on walls but then I do have a personal stash that’s green, brown, beige batiks. They’re in a very simple wallhanging that I carry that over into other smaller things that I may do for charity and auctions. So I’m more impressed right now with what I see as a movement going back to simplicity and my concern is have they abandoned, are they adhering to those rules of precision, the workmanship, have they abandoned good workmanship for being fast? I hope not. I’m told by the people that it’s not. It’s the combination of simplicity, good workmanship to produce quilts for a more modern age that blend with the lifestyle that we have. How’s that for a philosophical statement?
AM: Well that’s where I was going next. I was going to say, I’d be interested in to hear more from you in terms of your being a part of a growing demographic in the quilt world, men in quilting, male quilters, and how you see that. What do you think male quilters bring to the culture of quilting?
HT: The demographic as I said earlier, is the whole range. I believe we’ve always known that there were men who quilted. And back in the seventies, you know, we could read about the husband who would thread his wife’s needles but would never think to put the needle and thread into the quilt. There was a man out in Kansas who introduced machine quilting to us but this was back in the forties, see. So there have always been men there and they did not begin influencing until probably the seventies when we found Michael James out of Rhode Island, Jeff Gutcheon in New York who I believe introduced a concept of the illusion of using fabric. I did a lecture a number of years ago on this, on the early days and I found that Jeff Gutcheon was the one that introduced this, not optical illusion but using the gradations of fabric and then of course Beth [Gutcheon.] did the one The Goose is Loose, which is Flying Geese that are just all over the place. See so the two of them, but especially he, had an interest in color. There were two others, there was a fellow out in Chicago that did primarily the design end of large pictorial things and then Charles Counts in Alabama who worked with that Rising Sun Quilt Co-op. But other than Michael James, not many continued so there was a period in there where you didn’t find them. I find that now that men who have emerged, are into all kinds of styles beginning based on what their background is. If they have approached it from an artistic standpoint, you find their quilts are more artistic in nature. They’re using fabric instead of paint. Then there’s a group that seems to have picked up old blocks from their relatives and they’re working on those as a basis. Then you have those that are very traditional, stand with the traditionalists, and then you have those that just don’t care if the seams are straight or not, which I joke with them about all the time. I’m not sure that I could say that any of those groups are having a tremendous influence on the basic construction, but the group that are, are the machine quilters. Because you have this whole technology that has developed with the longarm quilting and they are having a good influence. Probably the other one that has major influence and it’s not only design but it’s the use of technology, is Ricky Tims. Because he’s brought more out of the communication technology end of the field and a woman could have done it as well. But yet he happens to be a man and it’s combined with good design, good techniques, good workmanship.
AM: Well I think that we are close to our end time, but is there anything else, any questions I didn’t ask that you’d like to respond to?
HT: I’ve learned there are only three rules in quiltmaking. And I want these to be put down for posterity, in a prominent place in the Smithsonian, wherever it is, Library of Congress, and once you do those, then everything else falls into place. Accurate measuring and marking, accurate cutting and accurate piecing. And what happens next is what you put in as your individual personality. But once you do that, everything else falls into place. And let me tell you this: contrary to popular belief, hand quilting is not dead. With this organization, I’ve taught five years straight, eight shows a year, each show I did hand quilting two times, so do the math, we don’t have time to do it here and I had full classes from 15 to 20 people. So that’s a lot of hand quilters out there so we’re not dead yet.
AM: Absolutely. Thank you so much. I’d like to thank Holice for allowing me to interview him here at the Georgia Quilt Show for Quilters’ S.O.S. – Save our Stories oral history project and we are concluding our interview at exactly 1:00. Thank you.
HT: And I thank you too, this has been delightful.
AM: You’re welcome. [applause.]
Holice Turnbow, Interviewee
Amy Milne, Interviewer
Alice Helms, Transcriber
October 20, 2011
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