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Tomme Fent (TF): My name is Tomme Fent, and I'm here interviewing Jan Cook for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. It is Saturday, October 4th, 2008, and the time is 11:42 a.m. So, Jan, thanks for allowing me to interview you today.

Jan Cook (JC): Well, thank you for asking me, Tomme.

TF: Tell me about this beautiful quilt that you've brought for your touchstone object.

JC: This is a quilt that I made a few years ago out of my grandmother's Flower Garden quilt. I inherited a partially made top that my mother gave me that my grandmother had pieced together, which are the Flower Garden pieces in the quilt. And I inherited this probably in the seventies, about 1976, '77, is when she gave it to me. I never knew what to do with this quilt top and it just kind of got put in with my things for many, many years. Around 1980, 1982, maybe between those years, I really started doing more quilting and thinking about quilts, so I took part of that top and made ornaments for my two sisters and a couple of my nieces at the time out of this quilt top. And then I also made my oldest sister a duck and turned it into a door stop out of some of these blocks.

So in about the year 2000, I decided, 'Oh, that was pretty silly of me to actually cut this quilt up!' But I was trying to get a piece of this top from my grandmother, their great grandmother, et cetera, to all the women in my family. And so now I had the smaller piece and decided, 'Now I need to do something with this to preserve it.' So I had gone to [the International Quilt Festival in.] Houston that year and I had seen various things that were done. Finally I decided to take the blocks apart. I had about fifteen blocks. Some of them were in good shape, as these twelve are, and then I had some that were in not very good shape. My grandmother, whose name is Charlotte Gutschmidt. It's actually Charlotte Reiswig-Delk Gutschmidt, the woman who pieced the Flower Garden blocks. She had twelve children. So I took the blocks apart, and they were very, very tiny stitches that I had to carefully take them apart. I appliqud them onto a piece of muslin and then searched and bought reproduction Aunt Gracie fabrics, because they're all done in the thirties, and made this design, scanned her picture and put it in the center. And that's how I came about making this quilt.

TF: Well, it's beautiful.

JC: I did not hand quilt it. It is quilted by machine by--what's her name? I will think of it. I can't remember who quilted it right now.

TF: Barb Heetland?

JC: Barb Heetland, thank you. Barb Heetland quilted it for me.

TF: Were the Grandmother's Flower Garden blocks hand pieced?

JC: Yes, they were all hand pieced. And from what I can--from talking with my mother, we decided that it was made sometime in the late thirties, maybe, so I called it like circa 1935, because my grandmother died in 1941, and my mother remembers her working on this particular quilt. She said she loved making Grandmother's Flower Garden blocks and she had other quilts like that.

TF: Do you know if she used the English paper-piecing method or if she used templates?

JC: I have no idea. She grew up, she was from Harvey, North Dakota, and lived all of her married life in North Dakota, so I would imagine that she probably cut her own templates and did it that way.

TF: Do you have any other quilts that she made?

JC: I do not.

TF: Do you know if any others survived?

JC: No, I don't. As far as I know this is all I have. Unless some of the other children and their descendants have quilts from her, but they're all gone now. My mother is the last living child of this family, so I have no idea.

TF: Are there other quilters in your family?

JC: Yes. My sister, who is five years older than I am, she is a quilter and she actually owns a quilt shop in Dyersville, Iowa. But she's really, she's been quilting a lot longer than I have and she influenced me to begin quilting way back when, because I always was amazed at her. She has got seven kids and she'd make all these quilts for them and had a full-time job and was one of those people. [laughs.]

TF: One of those people we all envy.

JC: Yes. So now she has her quilt shop and she does that full time, and I was really excited about her when she opened her own quilt shop.

TF: What's your earliest memory of a quilt?

JC: Oh, my gosh. We really did not have quilts in my family as I was growing up, so my earliest memory of a quilt would be when I got this quilt, actually, from my mom, this quilt top. So that would be like somewhere when I was in my early twenties.

TF: You said that your sister influenced you to learn to quilt. So how long have you been quilting?

JC: I would say I've been quilting since 1980, and I can say that because that's when my oldest child was born and I made him a quilt as a baby. And at that point, I took some lessons. We were in Wisconsin at the time, and I went to a quilt class in Wisconsin, in Cedarburg, Wisconsin. My husband's grandmother also made quilts, and when we got married in 1977, my sister-in-law gave us a quilt top that she had made, and that's been since quilted and I have that one also.

TF: So you learned to quilt in a class?

JC: I did. I learned to quilt in a class. But before that, I had been sewing since I was nine years old. My oldest sister, Marilyn, who's twelve years older than I, I remember her sewing as a teenager, and everyone in our family sewed. So I was making Barbie clothes. I first learned to use the sewing machine when I was nine, and I was making all my doll clothes then. And when I was in high school, I made a lot of my own clothes. I made my kids' clothes, even made some of my husband's jackets and things when we first got married. So I think that's why in 1980, I really started going into quilting, because it was just a natural progression. I sewed, and so I made my son that first Log Cabin quilt was his baby blanket and tied it.

TF: Do you still have that quilt?

JC: Yes, I do.

TF: Oh, that's really nice.

JC: Yes.

TF: How do you use this quilt?

JC: This quilt just hangs on the wall.

TF: In your home?

JC: In my home, right.

TF: And what are your plans for this quilt? Who will get this quilt when you're through with it?

JC: I don't know who's going to get this quilt because I have no daughters. I have three sons. And somebody is going to have to have it, and I just don't know who's going to get it yet because nobody's married and that person hasn't come into my life yet who's going to inherit this quilt.

[brief pause.]

TF: How much time do you think you spend quilting, whether it's a day or a week or whatever?

JC: I spend, I would say on an average, six hours a day quilting because I now have a longarm quilting machine and I quilt for other people. So I usually don't quilt on Friday and Saturdays, but I would say on an average, six hours a day.

TF: How much time do you get to spend on your own projects?

JC: Not very much. [laughs.] So that's going to have to change I think, but, yes, not very much.

TF: When did you get your longarm machine?

JC: I got that in 2004, so I've had it four years.

TF: When you do make your own projects, what kinds of quilts do you like to make the best?

JC: I don't know that I have a single one type of quilt that I like to make. I like to make a quilt for a person. I usually have a person in mind and then I will pick a pattern for that specific person. For example, I have many grand nieces and nephews, and so I usually try to make them each a baby quilt. So there are the baby quilts that I will make, whether it's a boy or a girl. I started out pretty intricate and now I've gotten pretty simple with just some four- or six-inch squares put together with Minkee [fabric, by Benartex.] and chenille fabric. For my sons, I will make them maybe a flannel quilt or I am now working on a wedding quilt and that's a batik and it was a paper-pieced, Judy Niemeyer pattern. So I would think I like to work on a specific quilt for a specific person, and whatever that is, whatever speaks to me, that's what I like to make.

TF: Are there any particular kinds of fabrics hat are your favorites, in style?

JC: Again, that kind of comes and goes. I guess I tend to gravitate towards the novelty prints because I'm always looking for a baby quilt to make, having so many nieces and nephews, and they all have so many kids. But in recent times, I've come to really like batiks, just because of the--you can make more picturesque quilts with those. And just various fabrics will just catch my eye.

TF: Do you make your quilts all by machine?

JC: Yes. I would say I'm a real machine gadget girl. Handwork is tedious to me and it just goes too slow. This one wedding quilt that I'm working on now has a lot of appliqu to go onto it and I'm dragging my heels getting it started because it's just, I have a hard time sitting down and doing the appliqu work. I'd rather do the appliqu by machine.

TF: So this quilt, this wedding quilt, you're planning on doing the appliqu by hand?

JC: I haven't decided yet. If I want to get it done, it better be by machine.

TF: Tell me about your sewing space, the space where you do your quilting.

JC: Okay. I've taken over the basement of our house. When my sons grew up and moved out and got jobs and moved out on their own, I just kind of reconverted the bedroom that was in the basement and made it one big space. And in order to house my longarm, I kind of needed to do that. And so that's where I sew now, is in the basement, in half of the basement. I have my sewing machine, I have my longarm, I have all my fabric down there, and I have a really nice space there.

TF: Do you have a fabric stash?

JC: Yes, I have a fabric stash. It's not large. It's not huge. But I do have bundles, I like to collect the bundles, the big like whole collections of things.

TF: The fat quarter bundles?

JC: Yes, the fat quarter bundles, and then I look at them and don't know what to do with them, so if I want to make a quilt, I usually go out and buy more fabric for that specific quilt. And then I have all my fabric that I just like to look at, and I'll go through it, and I still have patterns from way back, way back, when my children were small, that, 'Oh, I need to make that!' And I still want to make that quilt but I just, something else will catch my eye and I'll make that instead.

TF: How do you organize your fabric?

JC: It's organized by color. In fact, just the other day I was thinking, 'I need to go and get a few more of those storage space, the shelving, the wire shelving, so that I can put more fabric in it.' Because I have more that's just kind of sitting on shelves now that needs to get into drawers and off the shelves.

TF: You know that fabric will always increase to fill the available space, don't you? [JC laughs.]

Are you involved in a quilt guild?

JC: Yes, I am involved in the Siouxland Samplers Quilt Guild in Sioux City, Iowa.

TF: And have you held any offices or positions in the guild?

JC: Yes. I've been--what was I? Well, right now, I'm in Special Projects, and before that, I was--that's right, I was the Vice President in charge of getting the programs for two years. That was very challenging because I was very new in the guild, and of course wanting to volunteer for a position. Did that and really got me to know who's out there that can give programs, and I guess it was a good way to jump into a guild and get involved and get to know people and get excited about it. But right now, I'm in charge of Special Projects, so I'm working on raffle quilts. We have a guild raffle and I've organized that and gotten the quilt made. We also have gotten a quilt made for the Siouxland Red Cross. I organized that. I did not specifically make that quilt but just was the vehicle to get that quilt finished, and it is done and at the Red Cross. And we're also working on a quilt for the Humane Society for this year.

TF: After that first class you took in Wisconsin, have you taken any more classes since then?

JC: Yes, I have taken many classes. This would be in 1980--let's see, we were there, 1981, we moved to Pascagoula, Mississippi, and that was a lot of fun. I had my husband's grandmother's quilt, which is a Flower Basket quilt, and it was just the top. And I needed to get it hand quilted so I went to the local Baptist church, and there was a group of women who did quilting. Well, I started with them and would go every week to their quilting bee and really learned how to hand quilt with them. And I would take my little son with me, the baby, and I would sit there around the frame with these women, and it was just a lot of fun. One of those women hand quilted this other quilt of mine, but I learned to hand quilt with them. And then I did several quilts that I did hand quilt, but again, it just takes time, so I have now gone to machine quilting. And I took classes--we were only there in Mississippi for a year. Then we moved to Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and there was a quilt shop there. I took several classes, just some fun things, at that place, and also joined the guild there. And we were there for fourteen years. I was not as involved in the guild because I had small kids, but would go to the monthly meetings and was involved in quilting.

TF: When you get ready to make a quilt, do you like to do your own designs or do you use patterns?

JC: I usually use a pattern. I'll look through the books and find something that I like. I've tried doing some of my own designs. I would go on EQ5 [Electric Quilt.] and I've designed maybe two quilts on EQ. Actually, this one that I did [indicating her touchstone quilt.], I designed on EQ.

TF: You're talking about the computer program Electric Quilt?

JC: That's correct. But I usually would rather go to the books and I'll pick something out there and use a published pattern.

TF: Other than using EQ, do you use a computer in any other way in connection with your quilting?

JC: I might use it for scanning a picture, as I did in this quilt that I've brought. I scanned a picture and incorporated it into the quilt. I also have a computerized embroidery machine, so I'll use that from time to time and enhance a quilt that way.

TF: By the way, what's the name of this quilt?

JC: This quilt is called "Charlotte's Flowers."

TF: What do you think makes a really great quilt?

JC: I think what makes a great quilt is the story behind it. There are beautiful art quilts out there, but what I really like is the story behind the quilt. There's probably a lot of quilts that have stories that you might not look at twice, but if you knew the story behind it, it would bring a lot more meaning to it.

TF: What do you think makes a great quilter?

JC: Well, I think you have to have a passion for your art, and that's what makes a great quilter.

TF: How do you think we can preserve quilts for the future, quilts and quilting?

JC: Certainly this project, Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories, is one way of preserving quilting for the future. I think encouraging people to do the hand arts, just taking it out and by us making quilts for our children, our grandchildren, our nieces, our nephews, all the people in our family, makes it important to them and hopefully, they'll carry on the tradition. I'd still like to see sewing being taught in the schools.

TF: Have you ever taught any quilting classes?

JC: Yes, I've taught some. I'm now involved with a quilt shop locally in Sioux City, Iowa, and I've taught a few classes there.

TF: Any particular type of class?

JC: I've taught the digital photography, how to put photographs in quilts, and paper piecing, a paper piecing technique.

TF: Do you have any opinion about, especially now that you're doing machine quilting, about in the quilt shows, about hand quilting versus machine quilting and whether they should be separate categories and things like that?

JC: Yes, I do have an opinion, and that is that I do think they should be separate categories. Hand quilting is an art in and of itself, and it's almost becoming a lost art that hopefully we don't lose because it is beautiful. Machine quilting is becoming an art in and of itself, and so I think they need to be separated and valued on their own merits. TF: What about the difference between a quilt that's quilted on a longarm machine and one that's quilted on someone's home sewing machine; do you see a difference between the two?

JC: I don't really see a difference between the two if the quilting is done by the quilter. When you have a piece that, if you pieced the top and it's quilted by someone else, that's a whole 'nother ballgame, but if you've made the top and quilted it yourself, if it's on a longarm or a domestic machine, I don't see a lot of difference in that. It's just the vehicle that you have, that's available to you. I've seen some beautiful work done on a domestic sewing machine, and I've seen some beautiful work done on a longarm machine, but the difference lies in who's doing the quilting. Is it the person who pieced the top, or is it another person altogether?

TF: What part do you think quilts play, what role, in our society today?

JC: I'm not really sure how to answer that. I think they're still looked at as just a functional unit in our society, I guess, but quilts also--table decorations, I think we still see it as a function. At least that's the way it is in the Midwest. I'm not sure how people view quilts in other parts of the country. As I travel, I really don't see a lot of quilting done in warmer climates. When you go south, I don't know that they're as prominent as they are in the Midwest, but I don't know. That's just not my--I don't have any way to know that. If I go to foreign countries, I certainly don't see a lot of quilting there. Maybe that's because quilting right now, in the Midwest and in our country, is a luxury. We have enough capital to be able to buy fabric, to be able to make quilts. Maybe it's a leisure activity. In other parts of the world, I do sail quite a bit, and so I go to these small islands. You're not going to see quilting there. They're too poor. They don't have a sewing machine. And if they do have a sewing machine, they're making clothes and they're making things that people need.

TF: Do you think quilts play an important role in women's history?

JC: I think they play an important role in American women's history, and I think that my quilt that I brought kind of exemplifies that. This was a woman who started her married life in a soddy in North Dakota farm fields. A sod house.

TF: Oh, a soddy.

JC: A soddy was a sod home made with cutout bricks of sod, was their first--was my grandmother and my grandfather's first home. And they had to piece quilts together--they did, they pieced quilts together, made blankets so that they could be warm. But these women, even the women that were traveling in wagon trains going west, made their blankets, made their quilts beautiful. They pieced them together in some type of organized fashion so that there was a little piece of them, a little piece of beauty in whatever hardships they were finding. So I only know of the quilts in the history of American women. I'm not sure. I'm sure European women was much the same, but I don't have that knowledge.

TF: What's the next thing for you in quilting? What do you want to learn? Where do you want to go with your quilting?

JC: The next thing is for me to develop my own quilting. I've spent the last four years learning the longarm machine, quilting for other people, and learning that part of quilting. The next thing for me is to make my own legacy, to make my own quilts and to do more of my own quilting. That's where I see myself going.

TF: Doing your own quilt designs?

JC: Yes, I would like to--like I said before, I use patterns and I go to the books and find a pattern. Well, I think I am not an artistic person. I'm not naturally an artistic person. I would say I'm a crafty person, but I need a basis. I need a starting out point. And I would like to take those patterns and then maybe skew them a bit and make them my own.

TF: What's your favorite thing about quilting, your favorite part?

JC: I would think it has to be the planning and the sewing. I love to sew. That's why I probably do everything by machine, I just--and maybe it's because I started at such a young age with the sewing machine. I just love to sew. I like cutting out, I like sewing the pieces together, and now, I even like quilting it because I can put it on my longarm machine and I can decide a pattern and then I like the physical activity of sewing on a machine. I hate binding [laughs.] and I hate stitching it down.

TF: So that would be your least favorite part, the binding?

JC: That's my least favorite part, is the binding. And when I was making clothes for myself, I hated doing the hemming.

TF: The hems?

JC: I guess I've always hated doing the handwork.

TF: Do you make any other types of quilted items besides quilts? Do you make any clothing or home dec items?

JC: I do. I have made table toppers and usually in the last quilt shows, I've always made a jacket, a quilted jacket. And I love doing that but they never fit me. I have a hard time fitting. I probably would make more quilted clothes and embellishing clothes, but I have a hard time making them look good on me. They look good hanging on a hanger; they don't necessarily look good on me.

TF: Well, and I know that you've also made some really, really cute quilted bags.

JC: Oh, yes, I have, yes. I've made quite a few bags. I guess I've kind of stopped making them because I'm saturated with the bags. So unless I have someone to make one for, but I like those projects that go kind of fast and quickly.

TF: Are you a member of any small quilting groups, either within your guild or separately?

JC: Yes, I do have a small quilting group. There's nine of us total that get together once a month, and we're doing projects within our little group that challenge me because they force me into an area that I probably wouldn't necessarily go. The Grab Bag is something that is really challenging to me, the grab bag idea of getting just lots of extraneous--somebody puts items into a bag and then they give it to you and you have to make a quilt out of that. That just really taxes my mind. [laughs.] I don't know where to go with that. I need a foundation. If someone gave me an idea, 'Oh, okay, now I can use all these items and make a quilt out of it.' But it's hard to make something, when you have nothing and you have all these, it's just hard to come up with the idea. And also, we're working on--everyone's gotten a piece of fabric, we've all shared our favorite piece of fabric. Now we have to take those fabrics and put them together in some type of quilt. Well, that's taxing on me, too. I don't know what to make. But I do think I have an idea; I just have to put it together now.

TF: Is there anything about quilting that we haven't talked about that you would like to talk about?

JC: I don't think so. I don't think so.

[pause. laughter.]

TF: Well, I'd like to thank you, Jan, for letting me interview you this morning for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. And our interview concluded at 12:12 p.m. on Saturday, October 4th [2008.]