Note: This was a demonstration interview that occurred at a training given at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
Karen Musgrave (KM): My name is Karen Musgrave and today’s date in October 21, 1999 at 2:30. I am conducting an interview with Georgia Bonesteel for the Quilters’ S.O.S. – Save Our Stories project in Houston, Texas. Georgia, what do you have in this bag that’s sitting here?
Georgia Bonesteel (GB): Well, I have brought a sampler quilt, which is probably one of my favorites. It’s one that –an earlier quilt that I did but one that I still tend to hold on to as indicative, I guess, of my work. I seem to spend a lot of my classes working with people who perhaps have never sewn before and are just getting ready to make a quilt or have a sewing background and maybe want to learn patchwork so this is a sampler quilt.
KM: And when did you make this?
GB: I would have to look at the corner to actually date it. I believe it is dated. Let’s see if we can find a corner that–
KM: Sure. [both look at the corners of the quilt.]
GB: Let’s see. 1984.
KM: Wonderful. So when did you start quilting?
GB: I started quilting when I lived in New Orleans, [Louisiana.] which was about 1971. As a little girl I did patchwork. I am one of these people that have been fortunate to be born with a lot of energy and I think that was a way for my mother to keep me out of her hair basically so I was given– I can remember as a little girl being given hexagons and sat in a corner with a needle and thread and was told to sew them together. I still have that piece.
KM: Oh, how wonderful. So quilting was in your family?
GB: Not particularly. No. My mother was a seamstress and in fact recently–my mother’s still alive. She’s 87. And if I have an opportunity to take her with me on an event I do and I did do that about two years ago and in route I asked her or I think maybe in public I commented that I learned to sew from my mother watching her at the sewing machine. And it was her love of sewing that I think really got me going and she interrupted me. She said, ‘Well, I’ve got to set the story straight.’ She said, ‘You might have learned to sew from me, you might think that I loved to sew but I sewed because I had to and I’ve never really liked it at all.’ [laughter from the audience.] And I mean she is very candid and she said you’ve got to realize that mothers of my generation needed to sew in order–they didn’t have a lot of money and they needed–she needed to make garments for my sister and myself. And, but my mother was very keen. She could look at a chair and upholster it or do a slipcover for it. She went to college and was an art major for two years before she met my father and then did not continue her education but she’s also very good at mathematics so I think that’s really basically, I inherited those genes for going on even if she did not like it.
KM: So what part of quilting don’t you like?
GB: Oh, well I can’t think of anything I don’t like about quilting.
KM: Oh, how wonderful.
GB: No, no. I like every phase of quilting. I sometimes wish it would get done in a hurry. I get anxious. I want to move on but we’ve got the sewing machine for that so, no problem.
KM: Cool. What do you think makes a great quilt?
GB: Oh, I haven’t gotten a chance to walk through the “100 Best Quilts” [special exhibit at International Quilt Festival called The Twentieth Century’s Best American Quilts.] yet. I helped in picking those out. And one reason I brought this sampler, I know that the people that chose the quilts know that one of my regrets in that selection and it’s not–it’s not that my quilt didn’t get in but I really feel bad that a sampler as such did not get in because I feel it is the core of what has been taught for the last 20 years in this country and if you go to a quilt shop that’s where a lot of teachers begin and it is where a lot of people get there impetus to go further. And so they allowed those of us that interviewed and wrote up some of the descriptions of the quilts to select our favorite quilt and it is interesting to note that I found a–I went through all the sampler quilts that I had seen and there was a favorite that I showed two series ago. And it was up in Lancaster, [Pennsylvania.], in that area, and I got hold of the lady who owned that quilt and it was interesting and all of you might be interested to know because I raved so much about the quilt and said how special I thought the quilt was, in her mind she thinks she’s got the best quilt that has ever been made and she would not let it leave the house. [laughter from the audience.] So sometimes you can overrate a quilt. [more laughter from the audience.] Finally I ended up saying it’s just a nice sampler, you know. But that’s basically what happened so I had to–and I just loved that sampler quilt and we couldn’t use it then so I had to take other suggestions. And I do–I believe there is a sampler quilt that is from Donna Wilder’s collection. And I just felt a sampler quilt should be in that “100 Best.” And so–and I’m still drawn to sampler quilts. If I go to a quilt show I think people have become very ingenious on how to set them in a quilt and they are not always what I call the plunk system anymore. It’s not plunk, plunk, plunk. [demonstrating: shows with her hands imaginary blocks set left to right three times.] They have become creative and so I’m always seeking those out.
KM: So why is quilting so important in your life?
GB: Quilting in my life? My goodness it’s my livelihood. Oh, I could name many reasons. I think for me personally quilting has identified my–I feel I am identified because I am a quilter. I feel that I have proven to my husband that it is not ‘just what are you doing with that needle and thread.’ And that is kind of the attitude that I think, at first, he had. Why are you doing that all the time? And then when I got my first royalty check and I’m being very honest with you and I think those people that are professionals would agree it’s too bad we have to evaluate that with a check–but it’s the truth. In fact it is interesting, maybe this is a private story I shouldn’t tell but I’m going to tell it anyway. I asked last night–I’ve become identified with Karey Bresenhan and with Nancy [O’Bryant.] and I just happened to mention to one of her friend’s last night I said, ‘Well do Karey and Nancy’s husbands ever come to these events?’ And they said, ‘Well, not regularly but Maurice, I guess is Karey’s husband, does come the last day and he will bring a video camera because now he is very proud of how far she has come but it wasn’t that way at the beginning.’ So I think that quilting in today’s life for those people who pursue it and find enrichment for it have been able to make a name for themselves whether it is monetarily or that– I mean all of us have seen full grown women cry in front of a ribbon whether they won it or whether they didn’t. And I think- [laughter from the audience..] shucks, she won it and I didn’t. [more laughter from the audience..] But I think that I’d like to say that the end result is what we are really after but there is a lot more in the threads then that. And I think when we stop and think about the element that we are all given that it is so cherished that everyone one of us have and it’s time and that is what takes so long in making a quilt. I look at any quilt and it’s time that has got to be the cherished part of what we do, the time that’s spent.
KM: So how many quilts have you made?
GB: Oh, I’ve never counted all of them. I have them in various places in my home. I’ve only sold about three. And most of them will be just handed down to my family. I’ve made many. I’ve made many. And I need to really–here I am telling someone in preservation that I don’t how many quilts I have made but it’s a lot.
KM: Have you documented them? Have you–
GB: Well, they are pretty much documented in my books so they are already self-documented. They are book documented.
KM: Okay. How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future?
GB: Well, I’m sometimes very frustrated because we work in a medium that does not last. I go to folk schools and I see blacksmiths. I see silversmiths. I see people that are working in a medium that is very lasting. We work in a medium that does not last and all of us that have seen old quilts know what happens–know the life span of a quilt. And I think better education certainly is a part of it. And making families realize the value. Being a quilt shop owner, excuse me a past quilt shop owner, I would say at least twice a week people would come in. And I live in an area where there are a lot of retirement people and people that are forced into taking care of what’s left in their family and many of them disregard these quilts. They know they are kind of valuable but many times they’ll say–but the first thing I’ll say is ‘but aren’t you going to give this to someone in your family? Don’t you want to document this for a reason to pass it on down?’ ‘No, I have no one to leave it to,’ they’ll say. And so in many instances quilts are lost souls because people don’t have any place to leave them. My first instinct is to say, ‘Well why don’t you present it to the museum in the area where your grandmother lived.’ Well, museums today are too filled with quilts. I mean if they don’t have the ways and the means to store those quilts, that is a problem. But I think that education and knowing that all of the things you all I’m sure have gone into, the no plastic sacks, not against wood and everything. And I certainly done my part, at least I try to when on public television to talk about that.
KM: What do you think quilting will be in the future?
GB: Well, from the looks of Houston today I think that it has a very positive future. I–I’m not sure; I think that in many regards–“a” I know it is going to go on. I know that we have created–I’ve also said here–felt recently that we have created many chiefs and not enough Indians. That we have as teachers have done an excellent job of passing this art and this craft onto people to the point that many people will say, well if she can do that and write a book, I can do that and write a book. So we’ve got a lot of people writing books, a wonderful array of fabric being printed. And what we need now are more Indians. And–but I think definitely, it will– quilting has a future. There is no doubt about it. And when you see what is happening with fabrics today and with the notions that are being made and the books being written—we just need the hands out there. And I think that where we need to reach the people are the young people before rock music, make up and boys. [laughter from the audience.] So that’s from the age of 4 to 12. That’s where we need to reach people. Then let them go through that phase in their life and then let them come back after in their late thirties or forties. That’s what we need to do. [laughs.] That’s my solution. [laughs.]
KM: Let’s go back to the quilt.
GB: Oh, okay.
KM: How do you use this quilt?
GB: Well it is folded up right now on a shelf with many other quilts. I do have quilts on all of my beds. And I sleep under quilts. I know many quiltmakers who don’t sleep under quilts. But this quilt is sentimental to me. It was on a cover of a book. [banging noise.] I use it for a quilt show if I take it and exhibit some of my works. I would show it as an example of say six different samplers that I have made. And–I like the balance of stitches in this quilt. I happen to like the colors in this quilt. And it’s just a favorite quilt of mine. It’s certainly not my most recent one–1984 so.
KM: Right. It’s wonderful.
GB: Thank you.
KM: It’s very wonderful. Who’s influenced you with your quilting?
GB: Who’s influenced me? Well when I first began quilting I didn’t really have anyone to influence me. I had an education from Iowa State in textiles. I was a home sewer. I knew how to make garments for my children. And I was approached because I was a seamstress in New Orleans [Louisiana.] and when I started doing patchwork the only thing I knew how to do was to go buy a little paper pamphlet and study that. And then when I first started teaching at our community college I simply learned to quilt by sitting with some senior citizens at the Opportunity House in Hendersonville. [North Carolina.] And I watched them and I observed them. And I’m certain they took out my stitches when I left everyday. [laughter from the audience.] One lady even had the nerve to ask me to make smaller stitches. They were at a large frame. And I didn’t quite understand what they were doing but I can honestly say that I feel that I learned from my mistakes. I tried. The first class I tried to teach I thought I was very naive I thought everyone would come. There were like twelve ladies in the class. I thought everyone would leave with a finished quilt because we had this big quilt frame and we would put it on and we would quilt everyone’s quilt every time. I thought I’d seen pictures that that’s what people did. I thought that’s what they did. Well it didn’t work out that way. So I had to change my approach and that is when I started working in smaller more manageable sections to do my quilting.
KM: So is that how you came up with your idea?
GB: Basically, I am associated with lap quilting. At the first all my lap quilted quilts were made in sections, which we then put together later on. I now do lap quilting by making a whole pieced top and a lot of things are quilted in a hoop in my lap and I still call that lap quilting. So I guess I’m always thought of and I’m happy being what is known as the technique person in quilting. I love for people to come to me and for me to solve their problem in quilting. It’s like maybe I’m doctor quilter. [laughs.] I like that idea. I want to make this, show me how I can do this. And then that pleases me to have people have a solution and that knowing they can go forward.
KM: Do you miss teaching in a small environment?
GB: Oh, I do that. I just taught. I just ended a class just recently just a week ago. I had ten people at our community college. So–we had a major milestone this summer. After being in business for 20 years, we closed a quilt shop and hardware store. And– I hadn’t realized what an emotional thing that would be. Not so much for my husband but for me. [laughs.]
KM: So what did you like about owning a quilt shop?
GB: Well, I liked the fabric that came in every week. [laughter from the audience.] I paid myself in one yard of fabric off of each bolt. [more laughter from the audience.] I never received a paycheck. I never, never once had a paycheck but it was okay I got that one-yard of fabric. And I liked the contact with people. I would try to get, if I were in town, I would try to get down to the store every day and I liked the quilters; seeing them; being able to help. We had ten part-time people and I think when you have a shop you do a lot of handholding. You help people out a lot. You assist. And I still have a small area in Hendersonville. I’m still in business.
KM: So how did the quilt shop/hardware store work? [laughter from audience.]
GB: Well, it was just a big open store. Just a–I mean,–it wasn’t anything real glamorous but it was just a big building. And–Pete had one side and I had one side. He wasn’t allowed to come on our side, of course. [laughter from the audience.] Kind of like sisters growing up in the same room type thing but it worked fine. It really did.
KM: The men were happy I would assume.
GB: Yes. Yes. Well they grew to understand that they had to bring sewing machines in and take them upstairs for classes. Yes we made them understand. [laughter from the audience.]
KM: I can certain see that. Let’s see what else was I going to ask you? What do you think makes a great quilter?
GB: A great quilter?
KM: Yes, a great quilter?
GB: Well, I guess it is probably the one asset all of us want in anything we do that would be enthusiasm for what you do and the love of what you do. Knowing that you’re content and happy and thinking up a design and– I think one thing that’s so fascinating about quilting is that there are so many phases to it. And you have to think up what you’re going to do or you have to make that decision number one. You have to decide on color. You have to decide on how you’re going to do something and then you have to actually do it. And I sometimes think that the reason that quilting goes on and on is that we never really quite get it right. We get a quilt all done and we’ll say why didn’t I put more yellow over here. Or why didn’t I do this. So we keep making quilts until we get it right, maybe. Until we get that perfect quilt. And I would imagine even those “100 Best Quilts” if you went in front and talked to Flavin [Glover, maker of the quilt “Row Houses”] or any of the ladies and said, ‘Is this your perfect quilt?’ They would say, ‘Well, if I umm, if I had just done that.’ So she’s going to make another one.
KM: So what is your perfect quilt?
GB: Oh, I haven’t made it either, no. But after that awards presentation the other night I– In fact, I hope that everyone that went to that said well they’re all fantastic but maybe I could do one. So without our store and that obligation anymore that’s one thing I would like to do, to be to see if I could make an award-winning quilt. So that–We all have our own little drives that we want to try and do.
KM: Will it be a sampler quilt?
GB: No, I don’t think so. No, no, I doubt it. It might be a good idea though. It might be a good idea.
KM: Wouldn’t that be interesting? Do any of your children quilt?
GB: No. No, they don’t. I have two sons and a daughter. My daughter unfortunately used scotch tape to hem her skirts in college. [laughter from the audience.] I’m ashamed to tell you that and pass that along. [laughter from the audience.] She can’t even sew a button on. I mean it’s bad. [laughter from the audience.] But she’s a journalist and she has other attributes. She’s a great gal but she just can’t sew. But I do have three granddaughters and there is good hope for them. Anna, our granddaughter, has–Last time she visited spent an hour and a half sitting on my lap in front of the sewing machine. And I told my son, her father, I said great attention span and I think there is good hope for Anna.
KM: How old is Anna?
GB: Anna, she’ll be four in just about another week. And then Claire, her sister, is too young. Then I have another grandson and another granddaughter in Atlanta. [Georgia.] So I have three good possibilities. Then we have two sons. And our son, Paul, our youngest, is a video producer. And he helps me with my public television and does some of that work.
KM: So what are the challenges of being on TV?
GB: Well, many. Many. The–my biggest desire is to try to present new and inspiring things for people to learn from so they can go forward. Something new and different. And that means being in touch with what is going on in the quilt world and try to inspire people. I think the one thing I like to do is to make people realize that it’s easy. That it can be done. If I can do it, they can do it. That’s my goal.
KM: What are your plans for the future for TV?
GB: Well, I’m working on my eleventh PBS series and I start taping in Switzerland and Germany next April. And I’m fortunate enough to be one of the teachers going over to Strasbourg. And I just met with Mr. [Hanspeter.] Ueltschi, who is the president of Bernina, which was quite an honor. And he welcomed me to bring the TV crew to Switzerland and we will take a 15-minute tour. That’s pretty quick but we will go through the plant and see how sewing machines are made. And see how they drop those chips in those little compartments or whatever they do. So I think, just thinking ahead, planning is something that keeps me very busy.
KM: Do you have any other plans for anything else?
GB: Well, no just–
KM: Any more books?
GB: Well, no, not for a while. I’m working on part of a new book. I just finished an article for one of the national magazines. All that takes a lot of work, a lot of paperwork, a lot of editing, a lot of getting samples ready. And one thing that I think for anyone who is a quilter is it takes time. We go back to that old thing. It takes time. It does not happen overnight. Pretty quilts take time.
KM: I lost my train of thought.
GB: Oh, well, it will come.
KM: Well, thank you. I hope so. [GB laughs.] What are other quilts that are favorites of yours that you have?
GB: Well, I think in talking to teachers, I think you will find at least for myself, we all have our specialties and our techniques that we work on. This morning I taught a class with a product that I am proud to have invented. It is something that has been a solution for me in doing the technique part of my work. And it is nothing more than having a continuous ¼ inch grid printed on freezer paper. And so we produced that and it allows me to skip over plastic templates. It allows me to go directly to a graph pad and design on something and code it in a certain way and then cut it out, press it on fabric, add seam allowances and sew it together. So this morning, I taught how you can use that in your quilt making.
KM: So how long did it take to–
GB: Well, they finished.
KM: From creation to–
GB: For what they did?
KM: For what you did? How did you come up with it and get it out into the world?
GB: Oh, well that took quite a while and that’s a long story. [laughs.] I came up with the idea when someone walked in a room and said, ‘Have you read in Quilter’s Newsletter [Magazine.] that if you take freezer paper you can iron it on cloth?’ And I said, ‘What?’ And they had read it, that freezer paper would adhere to cloth with a dry iron. And it’s not just once, you peel it off and you press it again and it will stay fifty times. And at the time I had taken a class from a quilt maker from England, Pauline Burbidge, who is a very contemporary quilter who I truly admire. And in this class, she taught a technique that I ended up calling, I don’t know what she called it, strip picture piecing. Where you can put designs together rather than appliqué, they are put together in long strips that can be horizontal; they can be rectangle or diagonal. And I call it interrupted rectangles where the designs come together and you can even get the curve of a moon or the shape of a fiddle or guitar because in between these pieced rectangles are straight lines that come and meet each other. And–but my frustration was I didn’t want to make a plastic template for each one of those silly little templates so when I heard that freezer paper would adhere to cloth I said why don’t I just put the design on freezer paper. And then I tried drawing a straight line across 18 inches and by the time I got to the other side it wasn’t straight anymore. I said what I want is a continuous grid on there. And so I contacted the president of James River Corporation who makes all this freezer paper. And I hounded him. I called him so much that he was very frustrated. At one point he said, ‘I’ve never been to the Blue Ridge Mountains. I will come down.’ And so he flew down from Michigan. And came–actually the day he came I had a class going on. And he came to our hardware store and to my class and I showed him why we needed this paper gridded. So for about five years, he–they produced this paper and I would buy it from him and then I would resell it. And one day he called and said, ‘We just are not in the craft industry. We do not know how to market this.’ As much as I had teased him and said, yes, but ladies could always buy it and then freeze their meat and they would know how much meat they were freezing. They’d know the size of their meat. [laughter from audience.] But that still did not convince him. He didn’t think that was very funny. And so they passed on the copyright and the trademark to me then I had to figure out how to print it. So we have it printed on a web press and it’s a very tense day when I have that done. It happens so fast [snaps her fingers.] and if the grid isn’t right we have to stop the press and I have five men looking at me saying, “Why does that woman care if it’s not a perfect quarter inch?” And they are looking at their watch and I’m saying it has to be perfect. And so then we start again. It means dealing with my husband, which is sometimes not that easy to do. So– [laughter from the audience.] so I’m not alone in that I think many quilters have come up with an idea and they have just had to stick with it and come up with an invention of some sort. So that is one of the classes that I teach and then there are some other classes that relate to specific quilts. On Saturday I am teaching a class on mountains that has to do with using the 30 and 60-degree angle on the ruler. And that’s a measurement that is sometimes–we all know 45 and 90 but we don’t deal too well with 30 and 60 so that’s a good experience. And–I think I will be offering more classes in machine quilting. I think that’s become very popular. And ladies have gotten to the point they are dropping the feed dogs on their machines quilting so now they are just what I call stippling the stew out of everything but they are not really understanding where to stipple and how to stipple to make it to their advantage. So–Most quilters today have developed specialties is what’s happened.
KM: Did you make your vest?
KM: So you make wearables?
GB: I do. [banging noise.] Yes, I do. I have a closet full of wearables as most of us do. Some we would not be seen in anymore. The kind of tacky ones. Our bodies change and styles change you understand. So lots happen, there.
KM: Do you like to make what kind of wearables? Vests?
GB: Mostly vests.
KM: And why do you like to make vests?
GB: It’s just a fun statement. It’s something you have to wear. You really only wear them with your quilting friends. You wouldn’t wear them out in public with other people. [laughter from audience.] They just wouldn’t get it, you know. [laughs.] You wear them to the guild meeting and to your quilters and to Houston. But we all have friends that don’t quite get. They don’t understand our quilting phenomenon and as much as you try to get them to cross over, they–they just don’t get it. I mean I have some tennis-playing friends. I do enjoy playing tennis. They don’t get it. To them it is another world that I am in. And so maybe we are happy with our little world that we are in. And–it’s just the way it is.
KM: It’s getting bigger.
GB: It is getting bigger. Maybe they will join one of these days. Yes.
KM: That is true. What would you like your legacy to be?
GB: My legacy?
GB: I worked hard. [laughs.] Oh, I haven’t ever really thought of that. I think that I was a quilt teacher probably.
KM: Did you like being president of I.Q.A.? [International Quilt Association.]
GB: It was challenging. It’s an organization that basically meets once a year and so when you are on the board of this association it’s hard because you only meet once a year and you play a lot of catch up. And I did establish a rule yesterday that you cannot be a board member unless you have e-mail. [laughter from the audience and GB.] Because that has allowed us to have much more frequent interaction with quilt makers. In fact this morning, my class of 25, I asked how many did not have– were not online. Three people out of 25 raised their hand that they were not online. Now that is an amazing–and I think within just a year that’s really changed. And so I turned to the other three and I said, ‘Are you?’ And they said, ‘Um.’ By the time they leave Houston they will probably think that they better get online.
KM: So how long have you been online?
GB: Oh, just since July. [laughter from the audience and Georgia.] Well, it’s taken me a long time. It’s not easy. I have my own web site and our son has helped us with that. He’s in communications but he has–The other big thing going is to be a web master. There are lots of web masters out there and they’re doing very well. The younger set that know how to do all that. And I just before I left–on part of my web site–I’m having a step by step so that every two months I will have a lesson plan on there that you can download a pattern. And I tried it before I left and it was most exciting. And, I have a little quilt store on there. Just a few things.
KM: So what other plans do you have for your webpage?
GB: Well, just keeping updated with the lesson plan will be enough. And I put my travel itinerary on there. And probably write up a little message about being here in Houston and things I did and people I saw. That sort of thing.
KM: Do you do anything else on the web? Do you surf on the web?
GB: No, I’m kind of scared of the web actually. I’ve surfed a little bit. I wrote a nice message about Doreen Speckmann dying. I felt very strongly about Doreen. She’s been a friend for a long time. And I check out other people’s web sites. I find frustration with it too because I knew all along that it would take away from time at the sewing machine and it has done that. And I find that I’m on the web at 4:30 or 5 in the morning or late at night, at weird hours, but it’s the only time that I can find time to do it. So it’s another mechanical device that we’re going have to learn how to appropriate time. Definitely.
KM: Is there anything else you would like to add?
GB: No. I think you have done very well. I do a lot of interviews myself and I–our son, Paul, graduated in communications from NC [North Carolina.] State. And one time I said, ‘Paul, I watch certain people and they do such a good job. I said what’s–do you have any keys? Was there anything in a book that told you how to do this well?’ He said, ‘Well, the secret to be good at interviewing is knowing all the answers before you ask the questions.’ [laughs.] I asked, ‘How are you going to do that?’ It does take a lot of research and I know Karen tried to meet me at some point before I came and with our busy schedules we hadn’t been able to. So–but–I thank you for this time and I commend you for this and I know how much fun it is to listen to other people’s stories and I think this will be a worthwhile project.
KM: Terrific. Well, I would like to thank Georgia Bonesteel for allowing me to interview her today as part of the Quilters’ S.O.S. – Save Our Stories project in Houston. And our interview concluded at 3:05. [slumps down into her chair.]