Interview with Sonya Lee Barrington, February 19, 2008

Quilt Alliance
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00:00:00 - About the touchstone quilt: "Summer at Ocean Beach"

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Partial Transcript: Okay, this is Le Rowell and today's date is February 19th, 2008. Um, it is 10:25 a.m. in the morning, and I'm conducting an interview with Sonya Lee Barrington for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. Um, and we are in Sonya's studio in her home in San Francisco, California. So Sonya, tell me about this quilt that you've selected for today.

Segment Synopsis: Barrington picked "Summer at Ocean Beach" as her touchstone quilt, because she likes it best of the ones she has made, in large part because she likes the techniques she used to make it, including hand dyed fabric, curved strip piecing, and hand quilting. The colors remind her of the natural colors around her home in Ocean Beach, California, and the wavy lines make her think of water. Barrington's work is influenced by the natural environment around San Francisco, and the plants and landscape near her.

Keywords: "Summer at Ocean Beach"; California; Fabric - Hand-dyed; Fiber - Cotton; Hand quilting; Nine patch quilt; Ocean Beach; San Francisco; Strip/string piecing; Techniques

00:03:08 - Starting to quilt / Teaching quiltmaking

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Partial Transcript: How did you get started?

Segment Synopsis: Barrington began quiltmaking in 1968 after her business making clothing and leather garments in the Haight-Ashbury was no longer profitable. After the craft cooperative for her garments closed down, Barrington started teaching quiltmaking and surface design courses at City College in San Francisco. In 1978, Barrington also ran a quilt store with a partner called Ocean Beach Quilters in the Marina District. It was open for two years, and in 1980, Barrington got a job at quilt symposium for the first time. She taught quiltmaking at the symposium and met a number of well-known quilters there.

Keywords: Haight-Ashbury; Jeffrey Gutcheon; Michael James; Quilt symposium; Teaching quiltmaking; Techniques; Virginia Avery; Yvonne Porcella; quilt shop

00:06:07 - Dyeing and selling fabric / Retrospective of work

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Partial Transcript: That was in 1980, and, um, in 1990, I started wanting to do something new for my classes, and wanting to expand, you know, my job there at the school, and also wanting to have some fabric that was sort of different, so I started dyeing fabric and marbling fabric.

Segment Synopsis: Barrington skips ahead to 1990, when she started hand-dyeing and marbling fabrics and selling them at different quilting events. She notes that the style in which she quilts changes roughly every decade and gives detailed examples, going back to the 1980s. She is currently working with recycled wool. Starting in the mid-1980s, she started selling small crafts decorated with quilt patterns at craft shows and eventually at other venues. She is now doing craft shows again, plus trying to arrange for her work to be shown in galleries.

Keywords: American Craft Council; Checkerboard - quilt pattern; Embroidery; Fabric - Hand-dyed; Fabric - Marbled; Fabric dyeing; Fiber - Wool; Hand quilting; Log Cabin - quilt pattern; Quilt Market (Houston); Techniques

00:10:04 - Traditional vs. art quilts

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Partial Transcript: I will have to say that while some people call me an art quilter, I don't necessarily call myself that.

Segment Synopsis: Barrington notes that she is considered an art quilter by some, but she does not really consider herself to be one. She thinks that because she started quilting and being involved in a wider quilting community fairly early on, people tend to perceive her as having been "in the forefront of the movement at that time." Barrington, however, thinks that her work has a number of traditional aspects, and she does not enter her work in popular art quilt shows. Although Barrington believes the quality of her work is good, her work is not a good match for those venues.

Keywords: Art quiltmaking; Quilt National; Traditional quiltmaking; Visions Museum of Textile Art

Subjects: Art quilts

00:12:13 - Learning quiltmaking / Techniques

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Partial Transcript: Do you have quiltmakers in your family?

Segment Synopsis: Barrington had no quilters in her family. Books and teachers were virtually non-existent at the time she started quilting. She was largely self-taught, although she did use a quilt inherited from her grandmother as a model for some techniques. Mostly she "just sort of made it up as [she] went along." As a result, it took her a long time to learn some techniques.

Keywords: Hand applique; Jean Ray Laury; Learning quiltmaking; Sunbonnet Sue - quilt pattern; Techniques

00:15:25 - Home studio

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Partial Transcript: I always have a design wall, and that's usually my design wall there.

Segment Synopsis: Barrington describes her design wall and home studio, which is in the dining room of her house. She goes on to discuss her Singer sewing machine and the few other tools she uses, including a rotary cutter. She talks about the good light the room has. Barrington keeps fabric in the cupboards in the room. She also has an oak table in the room. Barrington briefly discuss the other antique furniture in the house. Some of the antique furniture belonged to Barrington's grandmother, and she enjoys having those heirlooms around.

Keywords: Design walls; Fabric stash; Fiber - Cotton; Fiber - Wool; Grandmothers; Home sewing machine; Home studio; Rotary cutter; Work or Studio space

00:18:46 - Hand-dyeing techniques

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

Segment Synopsis: Barrington dyes cloth in large quantities and uses her washing machine for the dyeing process. She started working with gradations and learned a lot about color. After doing a number of gradations and taking meticulous notes, she had roughly 350 colors she could reproduce. As a sample for her booth at the American Quilter's Society Quilt Week, she put together a quilt displaying marbled fabric and several gradations. She also teaches dyeing classes. Currently, after going through different color phases, she is working largely in neutral colors.

Keywords: American Quilter's Society (AQS); Fabric - Hand-dyed; Kentucky; Paducah; Quilt Purpose - Teaching or learning sample; QuiltWeek; Techniques

00:24:45 - Favorite and least favorite parts of quiltmaking

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Partial Transcript: So what do you find most pleasing about quiltmaking?

Segment Synopsis: For the most part, Barrington likes every individual part of making a quilt. The exception is basting a quilt prior to doing the permanent hand quilting, because the basting stitches make the quilt look unsightly. She notes that her approach doesn't use a frame or a hoop to hand quilt. Barrington also describes the different techniques she uses to mark a quilt and the different approaches she uses to hand quilting. She does not believe that there is one definitive approach to doing things and teaches her students accordingly.

Keywords: Hand quilting; Teaching quiltmaking; Techniques

00:29:13 - Signing quilts

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Partial Transcript: Describe how you sign your quilts.

Segment Synopsis: For cotton quilts, Barrington's signature consists of only her initials and the date. If she has enough room, she prefers to sign with her full name. When she was doing smaller craft pieces in the 1990s, Barrington would either sign the piece itself, for at least some of the quilted pieces, or sign the mat board. For some quilts, she adds a label on the back of the quilt with her signature in ink. When she had a typewriter, she would insert a piece of muslin into it and type her name.

Keywords: Signing quilts

00:32:28 - What makes a great quilt / What makes a great quiltmaker

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Partial Transcript: Um, what do you think makes a great quilt?

Segment Synopsis: Barrington says that from the perspective of a quilter viewing one's own work, a quilt is great "if you really like it." She says it's harder to say what makes a great quilt when viewing other people's work, because quiltmakers have so many different perspectives. Barrington likes simple quilts, including Amish quilts, and quilts that make good use of color. When asked what makes a great quiltmaker, Barrington is unsure, but she says, "I think you just have to have a heart for it." She adds that quiltmakers are stratified into different groups, ranging from professionals to students, which makes the question difficult to answer.

Keywords: Aesthetics; Quilters

Subjects: Amish quilts; Quilting

00:35:33 - Quiltmaking career / Baulines Craft Guild

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Partial Transcript: Well, I have to say that I do love my work.

Segment Synopsis: Barrington says how lucky she has been to be able to make a living for herself and her children "in this field." Barrington is a member of the Baulines Craft Guild. She discusses this group at some length, including its history, its apprenticeship program, its membership, and its exhibits. Barrington also talks about the work she did for this group as their bookkeeper and office manager. She discusses the problems that changing tastes have caused for craftspeople. Barrington joined the Baulines Craft Guild, because she was hoping for fruitful interaction with people who were not quilters. At the time of the interview, Barrington continued to find interacting with this group's members "stimulating."

Keywords: Art Carpenter; Baulines Craft Guild; California Design; Eudorah Moore; Teaching quiltmaking; professional quiltmaker

00:40:59 - Challenges confronting quiltmakers / Conclusion

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

Segment Synopsis: Barrington notes that different quiltmakers have different challenges, depending on what they want to do. For instance, she would like to sell her work, but finds that it is getting harder and harder, because there is less overlap between what people want and appreciate and what she makes. Other people might find that their biggest challenge is showing their work. Another challenge for her is making plans to appropriately dispose of their quilts after death. New quiltmakers might find their biggest challenge is figuring out where they want to go with quilting and what they need to learn. When asked if she would like to say anything else, Barrington says that she is "so honored and so fortunate" to have participated in "this industry."

Keywords: Learning quiltmaking; Quilt purpose - Personal income; Selling quilts