Jo Ann Pospisil (JP): This is Jo Ann Pospisil at the Quilters’ S.O.S. – Save Our Stories project in Houston, at the International Quilt Festival interviewing Judy Murrah on October 22, 1999. Judy, tell us how you became involved in quilting.
Judy Murrah (JM): Something in general. I started sewing when I was six years old. I don’t know how far back you want me to go with this.
JP: That’s fine. You started at six?
JM: At Six years old my mom allowed me to sew on her Singer sewing machine. At the time I had to stand to sew because it had the knee press so I couldn’t sit and do my knee to make the machine go and touch the machine so, I stood. And the only thing my mom ever said was, ‘Slow down, Judy, slow down.’ So I played with her fabric scraps from what mom sewed, forever. I made doll clothes. I sewed little bits and pieces together. The first quilt I made was the first year I was out of college and that was in 1965. I made it out of taffetas and satins from formals that mother had made over the years for myself and sisters and neighbor across the street. I just sewed squares together–nine patches–but I did not know they were nine patches. I just sewed squares. My mom did not quilt but, my grandmother did. And so we had a few quilts in our house. I made the top the year before I got married. Then I got married the next year and the second year we were married my husband was stationed in Illinois. I’m from San Antonio
JM: He was stationed in Illinois and there were no quilt shops and very few articles in magazines about quilting so I was really doing this on my own. And from the Sears catalog bought big fat batting and a piece of cheap taffeta for the back and tied it with polyester yarns you buy in the dime store and bound it with wide blanket binding. That was my first quilt and it was in the sixties, probably ’67.
JP: What happened to it?
JM: I still have it. But I put it on the bed and you know, it goes, swoosh, right on off you know taffeta. But I still have it.
JP: You just use the regular taffeta for the back too, the whole thing?
JP: So the whole thing is just taffeta, taffeta?
JM: Taffeta and satins.
JP: Sounds pretty what color was it?
JM: Greens and pink and I think there’s a lavender in there.
JP: Did it have a special meaning?
JM: I guess it has a special meaning because it was my first one. And then the next one I made was probably two years later and I made it for my sister-in-law’s baby. And at that time I still had not taken any classes or known anything about popping your knots through, you know. I would just start stitching and I don’t even know if I used quilting thread. But I used cotton fabric then and maybe there was a poly blend from the dime store. He was born in 1968. That was my second quilt and then Jewel Patterson, Karey’s mother was my first quilt teacher. I learned about her teaching quilting classes in Karey’s antique store. She had taught one class and I saw somebody in a consignment store stitching on a Dutch Doll. And I said, ‘Oh, I’m interested, I’m doing some quilting.’ And then she said, ‘I took a class.’ So then I took the second class Jewel taught. And she went on to teach hundreds of classes. And then I ended up being Karey’s first teacher besides her mother in Karey’s quilt store.
JP: And just for the record on tape–Karey?
JM: Yes, she’s the owner of this show.
JP: Oh, okay. So you actually don’t use the first quilt you did anymore, it’ just–
JM: It’s put in a cedar chest.
JM: I never did use it.
JP: Yes, it wouldn’t stay on the bed. [laughs.]
JM: Right, so I never did use it. But then I took Jewel’s beginning class and we just made four little blocks. But I was hooked from the minute I took that class. And then I went on to take her sampler class. So that is really my first quilt that was used. I actually decorated a bedroom around it. It was navy and it faded, but I kept using it. It’s tattered and torn, because we used it a lot.
JP: The quilt you made for the child’s quilt–was it actually a baby quilt?
JM: Yes, it was a small baby quilt.
JM: But, it became his “blankie” that he carried around and tickled his nose with it and so I felt really good about that.
JP: When did you evolve into clothing? I’m assuming the jacket you have on you…
JM: Yes. I started in 1977, ’76 is when I took the first class from Karey’s mom. And in 1977 I entered a little quilt show that she had in the shop. It was just a 3 block wall hanging and it won a prize. Then I started teaching classes for Karey. Karey is just a brain-child with ideas that never end. She said that we had some border fabric from Concord in the store. By then she had started carrying fabric. And she said, ‘Why don’t you do a jacket with a border around it.’ So, I did and I designed it and hand quilted it. And I found out that I really liked the wearables and started making wearables then. Then it was in 1989 that the editor-in-chief of That Patchwork Place, the book publishing company that is now Martindale and Co., saw me at a market and she said, ‘I love those jackets, I haven’t seen anybody doing them like that.’ This is actually the second type of series of jackets I’m doing, the others had a bunch of manipulations and I still wear those, and people are still buying the books. I still see people out here wearing them and I say, ‘I love your jacket,’ and they say, ‘Oh, you’re the one–‘ [laughter.] So, anyway, that’s when it really took off. Barbara said, ‘Will you do a book for us?’ And I said, ‘Oh, there’s just no time to do a book.’ And there just wasn’t because I was working full time for Quilts Inc. and teaching a bunch. I did write the book eventually and it was the number one best seller for quite some time. I have gone on to do a total of five books since that first.
JP: What was the title of your first book?
JM: Jacket Jazz.
JP: And you mentioned manipulations, the first jackets, explain that?
JM: Techniques, just patchwork techniques and folding and tucks and ribbon embellishment. Probably on each jacket, the least number of manipulations or techniques was six. I did a series of fifteen jackets and they were all different. Some of them had as many as twelve different techniques in them. But you know you just do a little piece of Bargello and then do another piece of patchwork by sewing strips together and then using a special ruler to cut them apart and rearranging them on your sleeve, back, or fronts. And it’s really just a fun way to try out a lot of different techniques without making a whole quilt.
JP: So your basic focus now is wearables?
JM: It was wearables whether I wanted it to be or not because before it was out at the fall quilt market. We were already in production on the second book Jacket Jazz Encore. Their marketing department already knew it would be a big seller. Are you familiar with the book? You were nodding.
JP: I have it because the first classes I took was from that book.
JM: So, then we went on to a third book that was More Jazz, a fourth book which is Dress Days, and then a fifth book that is still out that is one hundred and one patchwork embellishment techniques, it’s called Jazz It Up. But, we did that because people were saying – we have your other wearable books and the pattern line, but then I’ll go back and think well I’d like to do ‘Prissy puffing.’ Where is prissy puffing? And so, that was one reason we did the book so you could find all the different techniques in one book and quilters were saying, ‘I love the techniques but I don’t do wearables. I wish you would do a book on just techniques.’ So, that book is still in print and is out here. Well, actually the other books are out here for sale with some vendors who have older books. I don’t know if that is the question you asked me. [laughter.]
JP: Yes, just an explanation on the wearables and how you got involved.
JM: But, now I’m working on a book that will come out early next fall that’s called In the Studio with Judy Murrah, because the company wanted me to do some quilts. People were saying that they loved the techniques but they would love to see how I would put them in a quilt, now that they had seen how they were put in a jacket. Now, I have a book that will be out next year that has six small quilts, and some decorative pillows, and some little quilts that are called “Love Notes.” They’re little greeting quilts, to give away.
JP: Would you consider the jacket you have on as sort of typical of the kinds of patterns you generally use?
JM: No, because this is a new series. I’m working on a series of jackets that are dusters, or swing jackets, or smocks, whatever you want to call them. They are one patch techniques. You know there is just one block and these crazy logs. Where as the other ones had multiple techniques in them. I should have brought one of the other ones today, so you would know what I am known for right now.
JP: That’s a beautiful jacket.
JM: Thank you.
JP: Can you describe for us exactly how you put it together–well not exactly?
JM: It just has four different color ways in it. The turquoise, the orange, the green, and then the yellow. You just start out with a rectangle or a square that you’ve cut nicely and then the rest of the pieces are put on like a log cabin in a series. I do an orange all the way around and then I do a green row, and then a yellow, and then a turquoise. They are just scraps rather than nicely cut 1 and ½ inch strips or whatever. Then you square them up, so that you can sew them all together. I put them on the back first. There are four on the back first row and then stitch and flip another row and then another until all four rows are complete. Adding the cuff, the yoke and the collar makes it look like it is a garment, rather than a quilt.
JP: Do you do other garments rather than the jackets?
JM: A lot of vests, but I really don’t do regular clothes. I buy garments and put the jackets on top. They’re always loose fitting so it’s not like I have to make a fitted jacket. Some are more fitted than others, but I don’t do tailoring and all that.
JP: How do feel about how the quilt industry has evolved? What have you seen?
JM: I feel wonderful about it. It’s just so exciting. It’s evident by the number of people who have signed up for classes and pre registration. Last year we had right at 200 or 220 who signed up for pre-registration, by the end of the week and we already have 200 signed up and still have two full days left, plus today left to go.
JP: How has the attendance increased over time?
JM: The attendance increases every single year–51,000 was last year’s number. I know we’ll break that. You can just tell by the number of bodies on the floor. And our attendance was up for registration too.
JP: How has entries increased over time?
JM: The increases have always been steady, but that is not my department so I couldn’t tell you. The increase of the quilts, right?
JM: No, that’s someone else’s department. I’m director of education so–
JP: So, you actually arrange the classes that are taught here?
JM: I schedule all the classes and the curriculum and have a volunteer staff here that works. There are 10 women who come and keep everything moving smoothly and I have a full time assistant who works at the office every day. I live in Victoria, Texas, rather than here in Houston, but we communicate by phone and fax and e-mail daily. And I come in for meetings and all our shows.
JP: Well, since you’re director of education, how do you feel about this project, Save Our Stories?
JM: Oh, I think that it is a great project. It’ll be interesting to see it all compiled and how it will be used. I would like to know more about the quilters of the 100 best quilts we have here. It would be wonderful to read a lot about them. So, I think it’s great and maybe in 100 years they’ll read what we were doing. We won’t be here to know what it’s like.
JP: Exactly. When you talked about your jackets a minute ago and you said you did a series of fifteen–so you do all of these yourself? Or, do you have others help you with putting the pieces together?
JM: No, I do it all myself. I’ve never mass produced to sell. Early on I sold my jackets because people would see them and say, ‘Oh, I want to buy that.’ And then I sold them. But, I’ve never sold anything that I’ve published and I don’t ever do commission work anymore because I just can’t. I have a lot of students who do. I can always refer people to one of them.
JP: Do you view quilting as an art or a craft?
JM: Well, it’s both.
JP: Absolutely. What is your inspiration for a new line? How did you decide to change to apparently you have gone through 3 different series.
JM: Well, actually I felt like I had exhausted what I was doing–I still have many ideas and have 15 garments that haven’t been published, but have pretty much exhausted that. I’m on the teaching circuit where I travel throughout the U.S. And I want to continue doing that. I like that. So, that was kind of my inspiration–I have to come up with a new book. And of course, the publishing company wants you to have a new book, so that they have a new publication out there. That is probably the inspiration to change to something else to keep it alive so that I can stay.
JP: Sort of market driven.
JM: Yes, and it’s kind of sad in a way because, I like the freedom to just get in my studio and just sew a bunch of stuff and just play with it–it doesn’t make any difference if anybody likes it other than myself. It is really not the income as much as I just like being out in the community and seeing more people and the travel. I love to travel.
JP: What is your least favorite part about the whole quilting situation?
JM: Least favorite part professionally would be when I have so many deadlines and I have to ignore my family. I don’t have any children at home anymore but, I’m very involved with them. I have two married children and a son that just graduated as an art student from the University of Texas. I have one grandchild and another on the way and I like to be involved in their lives. But it’s good that I don’t have to depend on them for my life enjoyment. Sometimes that gets in the way and that’s hard, sometimes work gets in the way of family.
JP: Has your family been supportive over time?
JM: Extremely. My husband is very good about women doing a job that they are suited for. He has been an executive, he has been a bank president, he owns a company now that’s an investment company and if a woman can do the job as well as, or better than a man, he puts her in that position. So, he’s been very supportive of me.
JP: Do you have any children–I suppose your grandchildren is too young–that actually do quilting also?
JM: Holly, my daughter, buys children’s shoes for all the Foley’s store so she’s here in Houston and she comes to the show every night that she can. She loves looking at it and she likes the ideas. She loves marketing, so she loves what I’m doing, but she herself does not pick up needle and thread and stitch. I think she will sometime. She’s twenty-seven. She’s just newly married but I think she will one day. My daughter-in-law is interested in sewing. I got her a sewing machine and my younger son is very artistic and has moved to L.A. to make a life out of his art.
JP: What do you think is the best use a quilt can be put to–what are some of the ways you think quilts can be used?
JM: Ah, to snuggle up in. To hang on the wall. You mean once it’s made the use of it?
JM: As a piece of artwork, a way to decorate your home, quilts on the bed, a gift for a baby, a love token to somebody.
JP: Do you have any inclination to do regular quilts as opposed to wearables?
JM: I started out that way.
JP: But to return to that?
JM: Well, the quilts that I’m doing right now you would not call regular quilts, because they’re not a Grandmother’s Flower Garden or–
JP: Not traditional necessarily, but just quilt as opposed to a wearable?
JM: Yes, because that’s what my new book is going to be. They’re little quilts–.they could be made into big quilts, a couple of patterns. Actually one of the quilts in the book is these crazy logs. But, it’s small and you could make it big by adding more blocks. So, yes I do like to make quilts, but not the traditional where you have to spend a year or two on one quilt. I like to just get all those fabrics out and just mess with them and cut and stitch and iron and have fun with it.
JP: See results–
JM: Yes. And decorate them with buttons and beads. Some of the hand quilting I do, every time I pull my needle up I put a bead on or a trinket of some kind and then stitch again. I add buttons and special threads and couch the threads down, so they’re heavily embellished. So you really wouldn’t think of them as quilts to put on the bed.
JP: Do you have favorite color schemes that you like to put together?
JM: Bright. I like bright colors.
JP: Is there anything in particular you would like to add as far as the project or your participation in quilting?
JM: It’s really been a way of life. It is a huge part of my life. And it is not something I sought out to happen it just evolved and actually it evolved because of my relationship with Karey, Karey Bresenhan, the owner of this show, part of this project you’re working on. And it’s been a wonderful part of my life. My degree is in Elementary Education. I taught elementary school and I taught art in junior high school for a very short time before I had my own family. I thought someday that I would go back into the classroom, but this evolved and it’s much greater than anything I could have imagined. It’s a wonderful, inspirational, keep going livelihood. I don’t ever tire of it. I sometimes get tired but I don’t tire of the process. I love it and it’s a passion.
JP: It shows you just glow when you talk about it. [laughs.] Does anybody have any questions?
Unidentified Person: Tell us more about the relationship; you said that your entry into this world was because of your relationship with Karey. Tell us a little more about that.
JM: Well, it was because I took a class from Jewel Patterson, her mom. It was the second class she had taught in her store at the time. She has a quilt shop and has for a long time, but it was an antique shop at the time. After I took that first class, I just ate it up. I didn’t do just the little project we were working on, but I went on to use every little scrap I had. I had sewn for my children, so I had lots of scraps. I would dig that stuff out and cut multiple blocks of what we were learning. Then I guess Karey saw how much I was doing. She never misses an opportunity to plug someone in somewhere, if she sees potential. And so Jewel, her mom, was the only one teaching – she was doing the traditional quilt teaching. Karey just ask me, ‘Would you like to come teach in my shop and do the decorative type things–not the traditional because Mama has that?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ So, I came along and you don’t do anything for Karey half-heartedly or participate a little bit. You just really get into it. And there is something about her that drives you to do the very best you can. So, I guess she saw the passion I had and she continued to give me a little more work and a little more. Then I started doing samples for her store. When she became a quilt shop I started teaching much more than I expected to teach. When she was doing the quilt shows I would just come to the quilt show and help Lynn Young who was the director of education at the time, who is now the Art Quilt Magazine editor. I assisted her and then after a few years Lynn wanted to go on and do other things. I had by then moved to Victoria and Karey called and said, ‘I think you can do Lynn’s job long distance, what do you think?’ I still had little kids at the time. But, there’s something about Karey–you just don’t tell her no–because she makes you feel so sure that you can do it. She makes you believe that you are the best person for the job, even if she didn’t believe it, you believe it. [laughter.] So, I got involved and I have just grown with the show and it’s been a fantastic opportunity. I’ve had wonderful travel opportunities. I have had every opportunity to meet any vendor or anybody out in the quilt world. We’ve done our shows in Europe. I have actually been handed something really wonderful. And I think Karey is one of my very best friends. Matter of fact she did the decorating for both of our children’s weddings, the receptions. We had beautiful Victorian receptions for my son and our daughter. My association with Karey is very, very deep.
JP: Does your family appreciate and recognize what you do and have been involved in? Do they understand the bigness of it?
JM: Yes, they do. As a matter of fact, my daughter met me here and we went through the tour of the 100 best last night when Karey was doing it for a special group and I told her that this would be a wonderful opportunity to hear it with a small crowd. She was very interested in it. But, my son, who is thirty-one, says to his wife, ‘You know you really should get into quilting like mom. And sometime you can make an income.’ She’s a stay-at-home mom and he wants her to be. They think that you can just pick up a needle and thread and you can do this too. Then my son-in-law has said the same thing to my daughter, ‘Learn this from your mom, so you can do it too.’ I am extremely generous with what I earn with them, so they know. The income is not as important for me as it is for what I can do for them, which is really fun. That is the other way I am driven, because I just love the joy it brings them when I can do for my kids–not that my husband couldn’t, but it’s just sort of the icing on the cake.
JP: How do you think quilting has changed over the years, since you’ve become involved?
JM: It’s huge, it’s just huge. When I first started, as I said, there was maybe Jean Ray Laury; there may be an article once in a while in Family Circle or something like that. Once in a while yours truly may have a pattern in a magazine that you could buy. Then I heard about Jeff and Beth Gutchen, which I don’t know that we hear too much about them anymore, but they had a book or part of a series of books by Time/Life. Then I heard about Virginia Avery and Roberta Horton–some of these big names are still around – and then those people started publishing and those were the first books. You would just buy every book you could find. Our Houston quilt guild was good in bringing those teachers to Houston. I don’t even know what the numbers are for the growth of quilting. And just looking through the 100 best, some of the quilts that were much earlier than what we’re looking at today. Those were magnificent quilts in their time and now they’re just so much more magnificent. People have learned so much more and they play with color so much more and our fabrics are so much more wonderful. We have so many options with the type of batting we want to use and we have so many cottons and threads. There is so much knowledge out there. It is such an art form. Ricky Tims is from St. Louis and actually he’s from Texas originally but he lives in St. Louis now. He taught for us last year and again this year and yesterday he was part of a luncheon program. He’s a musician before he was a quilter, but he’s an astounding quilter now too. Both his color and design is phenomenal and he’s a wonderful teacher. But, yesterday he did our luncheon program and he played on a baby grand piano and would play a few notes and he compared composing a piece of music to composing a quilt. It was fantastic. He would play his few little notes and then he would show on the slide projector a block. And then he did the same notes over again, over again, over again, and you would see this block over and over again. But then he added the melody and then he’d add to the quilt and it was wonderful. Then it lets you see what an art form you’re working with too. It has opened so many doors for so many people. I think it’s so different. Even the women and some men who were making art quilts way back when–there are so many more people doing that and considering these pieces of art in convention centers and businesses spending 30 and 40 thousand for an art quilt.
JP: Do you see any signs of it sort of reaching a plateau or leveling off?
JM: I don’t see any plateau or leveling, especially after being here this week. It’s just growing and growing and working in the education, I see more and more people coming up with more and more ideas. Even the teachers, who have been teaching a long time, still come up with new things and they’re doing something different or have a different twist to it. Young women coming to take classes and older women coming to take classes. People who stop you in the hall and say, ‘I’ve just had a wonderful class. Thank you for bringing so and so here. This is my first quilt show.’ ‘This is the first class I ever took.’ So you know you’re getting new people and we recognize our oldies that we’ve had just about every year. I don’t see any decline.
JP: This is a change of focus, but I thought of it as you were talking. What do you consider the qualities necessary for museum quality quilts?
JM: For museum quality quilts? Design – but execution too. It does not have to be a hand pieced, hand quilted quilt. It can be machine pieced, appliquéd and machine quilted. But design and color that I could stand here and look at it over there and say, ‘Isn’t that gorgeous,’ and then you are drawn into it, but the execution is nice too. It’s not something made sloppy. Now, that’s just me, now somebody else might think that stuff hanging off and half finished and whatnot may be museum quality. I really haven’t seen it be anything like that but, I think museum quality is art.
JP: We are getting close to the end of our time and we always like to let people know that and then was there anything that you would like to add that we didn’t touch on today?
JM: I can’t think of anything.
JP: Well, we very much appreciate your time and apologize for not knowing the person’s name that runs this entire show.
JM: That’s okay and now you know.
JP: Yes, now I know.
JM: And you may meet her.
JP: I am very happy to meet you, the Director of Education, as a very important cog in the organization because it is what I think keeps it vibrant and moving forward.
JM: We think that too.
JP: I really appreciate you taking the time to interview here
JM: I was pleased to do it.
JP: Here in Houston at the quilt show and helping us out with the Save Our Stories Project. That will end the interview now. Thank you.
Judy Murrah, Interviewee
JoAnn Pospisil, Interviewer
Elaine Johnson, Transcriber
The International Quilt Festival QSOS
International Quilt Festival
October 22, 1999
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