Artist Spotlight: Phyllis Johnson

Phyllis Johnson, originally from Caruthersville, Mo., now lives the retired life in Cape Girardeau making quilts and watching Hallmark Movies & Mysteries on television. If it was possible, she would quilt around the clock, designing patterns, piecing patches and hand stitching it all together with her lap frame. With four children, 13 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren, she never runs out of people to whom she can give a quilt. And while she has tried other forms of art — crocheting, counted cross stitching and embroidery — quilting is by far her favorite.

Here, Johnson discusses the inspiration behind her work, her creative behind-the-scenes process and the materials she gathers to make her quilts from around her home. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Photo by Aaron Eisenhauer

Amanda Flinn: How did you get started with quilting?

Phyllis Johnson: My mother used to make the majority of our clothes growing up. I was one of four girls. In high school, I watched her [sew the clothes] and started making my own clothes. When my third child was born in 1971, I decided to try making a quilt, and I did it. From that day on, I quit making clothes and started making quilts. I just enjoyed it.

Wow. You’ve been making quilts for over 50 years! What do you love about it?

My favorite part is picking out the fabric and getting the design laid out. I’m pretty old school and still like the nine-patch pattern my mom showed me when I was a little girl. Once I get started, I won’t stop. A lot of people say it’s nerve wracking, but to me, it’s peace. When the kids was coming up, I might only have an hour to quilt after dinner, cleaning up and getting them to bed. Now, I spend about eight hours a day [quilting]. I don’t care what’s going on, I can sit down and start quilting, and I’ve got peace of mind.

I love that. Where do you get your inspiration for each quilt?

If I see a pattern or design I like in a coloring book or magazine, I’ll have it copied or enlarged. Sometimes, I trace it by hand. But also, floors. I was up at Southeast Hospital, and on the floor, I saw a design. I always carry a memo book in my purse. I got it out and kinda sketched the design on the floor. When I got home, I got out some paper and laid it out bigger. And that design from the hospital floor became a quilt.

Photo by Aaron Eisenhauer

So, when you pick the fabric, lay out the design and start piecing it together, do you already have the recipient of the quilt in mind, or how does that work?

Nah, I just sit down and make them. If one of my kids or my grandkids wants it after it’s finished, I give it to them. Sometimes, they request something. My daughter found a picture of mammy in a book and said, “Momma, I would love to have a quilt like this.” And I said, “That is neat, I like that.” I took it to a friend of mine that had a printer. She copied it off and enlarged it. I went downstairs in the basement, looked through my totes and everything, and found some vintage print fabrics. That mammy quilt is one of my favorites. A different time, I gave a quilt and a laprobe to a guy in a nursing home in Jackson. My daughter was always talking so nice about this guy in a wheelchair. So, I made it and sent it to him to keep his legs warm. That Christmas, I sent him a quilt to go on his bed. My daughter called me, and he got on the phone saying, “Thank you so much, I just love it.” I said, “Are you crying?” And he said, “Yep. But they’re happy tears.”

What a sweet gift for a stranger; I bet it meant a lot to him. Do you have any other special quilts you’ve made or memories to go with them?

My mother passed in 1999. She was the one who taught me to quilt. She had some quilt tops she had started piecing together. My oldest daughter had them and gave them to me. I was able to finish the quilts and gave them to my three sisters. All of my quilts come with a label on the back that says who it’s made by, and I like creating something I can pass on to family. Never sold one, though. People just don’t wanna pay what a hand-stitch quilt is worth.

I bet it’s a lot of work. Can you tell me more about your process?

I have a Singer Heavy Duty sewing machine in the living room and a Janome machine in the basement. I use them to piece the fabric together into 21⁄2-inch squares. Once I get the material pressed out, I think about the design, and it usually ends up being a four-piece or a nine-piece quilt. That doesn’t take too long. Once the quilt topper is done, I make a sandwich. I put the batting down, get it flat and straightened out. Put cotton in the middle. Get it flat and straightened out. Then, I put the quilt piece on top, pin it, place it in my lap frame and go to town hand quilting it all together. But, I don’t make baby quilts. Make them big enough to grow into it, not out of it. For babies, I make a twin size, but I mostly make queen size quilts. I want them to drape over the top of the bed and tuck over the pillow. These are big quilts. The whole process takes about a month.

Photo by Aaron Eisenhauer

So neat. I would love to quilt one day. Have any of your kids or grandkids shown interest in learning how to quilt?

No, my kids do not quilt. My oldest crochets a bit. And I have another daughter that makes jewelry and T-shirt designs.

That’s awesome. Creativity must run in the family. Tell me more about using materials around your home to make the quilts. What does that mean?

I make pajama pants for my grandkids and great-grandkids each Christmas. I always have a lot of material left over. Plus, I’m always trying to find a fabric store when we head out, so I buy a couple of different yards here or there. It all goes to my stash. I just pick out what I want and start cutting.

Thanks so much for sharing your art with us. It’s beautiful, and I can see you have a passion for quilting. Has there ever been a day that you haven’t felt up to quilting?

You’re welcome. And no, not really. Every once in a while, I try to give my hand a little rest. But, I mostly just rub my hand down with Bengay and keep going.