Jenny Doan talks about the correlation between family history and family quilts
Jenny Doan and her family started the Missouri Star Quilt Company. A decade later, Jenny's quilting tutorials have been watched by millions, and her love of quilting has spurred people around the globe to create quilts of their own. Along the way, fans have sent stories behind the family heirloom quilts that have been collected into several books. Jenny discusses quilting, the importance of family stories, and how the two are related.
Family History Idea, compliments of Jenny's mother:
Fill a jar with writing prompts; during family gatherings, pull out a slip and ask your family elder or answer the question yourself. Over time, these brief pieces will add up to a long narrative.
Links & Stuff
Jenny on the Road, a list of scheduled visits to towns across the US.
Transcript of interview with Jenny Doan
Jenny Doan: My grandmother, she was an embroiderer. I'm the first in two generations to sew in my family and she embroidered things, and on squares of denim. And she came one day and said, "Can you just sew this together and put a little back on it because I want to give them to Aunt Ingie,” or whatever," and I was like, "Well, yeah, I guess so."
Jenny Doan: And I didn't realize that what I was doing was making a quilt. At that time, I had not quilted formally at all, and it wasn't until we moved to Missouri that I actually took up quilting because I used to do costuming for a musical theater and went right to the theater. They did not need me and somebody said, "Well, if you need to sew that bad, maybe you should take a quilting class." And so that was my first intro into quilting, was taking that class and I was totally smitten by that.
Amy: And then, what was it about it? Was it actually the handiwork of doing it or was it ... Did it go beyond that?
Jenny Doan: Actually, it was the creative part of it, and so I've made some really amazing costumes in my day, but to actually have one block and know that if you turned it 20 different ways, you got 20 different looks. It was so incredibly creative to me. I'd never seen anything like it, and so it just became ... The creating part of that was really fun and the connections I learned much later.
Jenny Doan: In the meantime, because when people make quilts, generally, they make quilts to keep people warm or that sort of thing and you're not thinking about what happens to them or why you're doing it. You're just doing it to keep people warm. And so, all those connections came much later as I started watching what was happening in the quilting world.
Amy: It's such a lovely thing and the people that we work with, that life story professionals work with, very often will come across clients who have artifacts, actual physical artifacts that means so much to them. And we want to draw that into the stories. But quilts, I think, are just so special because they're very utilitarian in a great way. They keep you warm. You wrap up in them, but they mean so much more than just having something to keep you warm. It means a quilt in my mind, it's a hearth and home and family and family history.
Jenny Doan: Yeah. Well, that was what's interesting when the Genealogical Society asked me to speak. Now, I've done genealogy for years and my mom is a major genealogist and so I was familiar with that world. But now I'm in the quilting world and I'm doing quilting, I think they actually thought maybe I was just a draw and I don't think they knew what I was going to speak about. And to be honest, I didn't either. And it was like the very next day, after they asked me and I thought, "Yes, I guess I can do that," and then I was like, "What am I going to talk about with quilting?"
Jenny Doan: And the very next day, this 80-some-odd-year-old man came in and he just had this scrappy quilt. And he told me the story but then he told me how he had lived with his grandma and that she had made them clothing out of flower sacks and how all these flower sacks, all the pieces went into these quilts. The story just went on and on and I said, "Can you just write all that down for me in an email?"
Jenny Doan: Well, of course, when you start to write it down, it gets bigger and you remember more and more details come into play. And so I got this amazing email from him that was all about his life story and how this quilt tied into it. And then a couple of days after that, somebody else came and they had this quilt and they wanted to tell me the story, and I'm like, "Well, this is what I'm going to talk about. I'm going to talk about ... I'm going to tell the story of these quilts."
Jenny Doan: And then I started remembering that I had a quilt that I'd made for my grandma when she was 80 that was all the hand prints of all her living relatives. And she was the youngest of 13, so there were just hundreds of hand prints. Then I remember the little embroidery thing she had me do, and so I brought one of those quilts. It was just like all of a sudden, I had more than enough stuff to talk about and it was actually really exciting for me because I didn't realize those two fields correlated as well as they did. But that was pretty sweet. That was amazing.
Amy: It was incredibly sweet and I've heard you say before that every quilt has a story and every quilter has a story, so I'm guessing that's what you're talking about. These people that are-
Jenny Doan: Actually, that's not what I'm talking about. The whole story part of it came into play when people started telling me, "I made this quilt for, and this is what happened," and my son, I said to Allan, "Oh, my gosh, listen to why this woman made this quilt," because I was getting letters. I'm reading these letters. And I'm like every quilter has a story and I think every quilt has a story.
Jenny Doan: And so Allan actually put on his site. Alan is my son and he put up on our site, if you have a story you want to tell about your quilts, send us your story, and he wasn't very optimistic. He thought we'd get like 10. We got like thousands of people who wanted to share why they made their quilt, how it affected them, how it affected the person that they'd given it to.
Jenny Doan: And so we started putting together these books called Stitched Together with Love, and I think we're on our third or fourth volume. And honestly, they could be much bigger. We're picking stories out of the thousands we've received. We're just handpicking a few stories to put in these books. But I really believed that, and so what we come to realize is that over 83% of quilts are given away. And that is a huge number of quilts to give away and it's a huge number of things to sew just to give away.
Amy: I had no idea that you were doing these books. You are helping people record life stories through these quilts.
Jenny Doan: Oh, absolutely.
Amy: I love to hear that, yeah. Are there any that stick out in your mind?
Jenny Doan: There's just hundreds. They'll make them for soldiers. They'll make them for ... The coffin quilts is a big thing.
Amy: What is that?
Jenny Doan: They make quilts for people who are [inaudible 00:06:10].
Amy: What is a coffin quilt?
Jenny Doan: Well, in the old days, they'd make these coffin quilts and they these long skinny shaped quilts that would go over the top of a coffin and then inside the coffin. There's a big history about these old coffin quilts that I've just started getting into and reading. It's kind of fascinating to learn about those things because that's a part of actual history. We don't do that too much anymore. Sometimes, people are buried with the quilt or something like that, but generally, those memory quilts are the quilts that you hang on to so that you have a piece of your loved one close to you that is tangible.
Amy: Exactly. That's the lovely part about it because it is tangible, and it is something that you literally wrap yourself up in. When you talk about different kinds of quilts, and this is something that I'm interested in because with clients, they may have a quilt that is very meaningful for them. But I'm sure that if they knew just a little bit more about it, it would tell more of a story.
Amy: For instance, if you have a very long skinny quilt that may have been a coffin quilt. Are there other types of quilts that are-
Jenny Doan: One of my favorites is the crazy quilt. I have one hanging in my studio right here and it's just tons of scraps of fabric. And literally, these were put together out of pieces of clothing and just all kinds of any extra thing they had laying around. And remember, they made their men suits and pants, and so it's all types of different quilts and shapes and pieces.
Jenny Doan: And they put them together and formed blocks, and they're called crazy quilts. Now, there's different kinds of crazy quilts because some of them were made just to keep people warm. But a lot of the crazy quilts have embroidery on them and the story is that if you're crazy quilt has embroidery on it, then it showed that you had a little more leisure time. You were a little better off because you could take time to actually add and embellish all these different designs to your quilt.
Jenny Doan: That's how that story goes with the crazy quilts, which I thought was kind of interesting because I have one that hangs in my office that was made in 1894. And I actually tried a little bit to find out if I could find the woman who made it because her initials are on it. But when you're looking for initials, it's total needle in a haystack even if you know the area, which I did. And so as I went searching, I'm just like, "All right, I don't know if these are pre-marriage initials or after marriage initials." I didn't know at all what that was like before. That's not probably going to happen anytime.
Jenny Doan: But when I talk about quilts, when I give a lecture on quilts, one of the things I talk on is labeling them because I don't have any old quilts, so I call myself a quilt rescuer. And there are a lot of quit rescuers out there. We find these beautiful old quilts and they come to live at our life. And that's one thing that's important to note is the quilts you make, if you make a quilt today, it's going to outlive you by generations.
Jenny Doan: And it doesn't matter how good it is. It doesn't matter how perfect your points are, none of that matters. You just know it's going to outlive you by generations because our most precious commodities are these quilts that we have these, old, old quilts. And we wonder how to take care of them and how to get that spot out and do we hang them, do we fold them, do we roll them, what do we do with them?
Jenny Doan: And so, I would love to find an old quilt that's written on the back or embroidered on the front or anywhere said something like, "This was made for Aunt Mary in 1930 for her wedding." Wouldn't you love to find a quilt that had just a tiny bit of history on it? And so, when I talk to these women, I say, "When you make a quilt today, make sure that you have put on your quilt a label so that generations from now when somebody finds it, it will represent you. They'll know who made it. They'll know what the occasion was. That to me is keeping that history alive so that we have something to show for what we've done all that time.
Amy: Right. That's an excellent idea. I'd counsel my clients all the time on their photos because usually people have ... Some of them will have photo albums and they'll have names on it like Grandma or Aunt Mary. But that doesn't mean anything once you get one or two further generations removed because who is this referencing?
Amy: And then most photos have no labels at all on them so it's something that could have meant a lot to the person that took the photo or to ... Maybe the kids who knew the story behind the photos, it means nothing if you don't take the time to actually put some labels on it just like you're talking about with quilts. And quilts are just so much, [crosstalk 00:10:59] right. They're so much bigger and they can have ... I've seen this in my own family. I've seen this with clients. You can have a soft spot in your heart for a quilt.
Amy: I think, I have to point out the fact that you mentioned this very briefly. You did not sew, or your mom did not sew, is that right? And your grandma did now sew and nobody quilted, and yet, here you are.
Jenny Doan: Yeah. My grandmother was the youngest of 13, and her sisters were fabulous seamstresses. But because grandma was the baby, they sewed for her so she never learned to sew. She had two girls, my mom was one. They never learned to sew. But I was born with that sewing gene. I was stapling things, taping things. I was putting things together that I just had to put things together. And so, that was that sewing gene where I was just making things and I didn't realize it was sewing because at the time I didn't have a sewing machine or needle and thread. But the taping, stapling all that worked and was the beginning of what I was doing.
Amy: I used to tape and staple my high school uniform skirt when the hem would fall out. But I don't think that's exactly what you're talking about. My principal is never very happy with me when I came to school like that.
Jenny Doan: Well, I remember I discovered scissors and the only fabric that was available to me hung in my mother's closet. And I just didn't think she'd miss it if I just cut a little bit out. I got in big trouble for doing that, but I can remember as a little girl thinking, "Oh my gosh, if I just took a little piece out of this." And I can remember her standing in the hallway kind of hollering, "Jenny," with the crazy outfit that have just a little piece of it.
Amy: Oh, that's great.
Jenny Doan: You mentioned on the picture thing. I had a conversation with my mom. My mom is an avid genealogist and it's like the cobbler whose children don't have shoes. But I said to her, I said, "Mom, you're 80. You need to take some time and write the names on all these pictures. You are our last fluent Swedish person in our family, and you're the only one who remembers all these." And she looked at me and she said, "Jenny, I'll do that when I'm old." And I was like, "Mom, you are old. You're 80. You need to do it."
Jenny Doan: Well, that wasn't too long after that she had a stroke. And then that was lost. She remembers some of them but we have pictures now that have ma written across the forehead and pa written across the beard. It's just heartbreaking because people always think they're going to have time, and they really don't always have time.
Amy: Absolutely. Well, I'm sorry to hear about her having the stroke. That's really hard.
Jenny Doan: She's doing well but she doesn't have the memory she did. And there are some days she doesn't have the language. She didn't lose all her language but someday, she struggles getting her words out and things like that. But the memory is definitely affected by those kind of things.
Amy: Talking about the cobbler, the kids of the cobbler not having shoes, it's the same thing with me. [crosstalk 00:14:15] Right, exactly. And I was guilty of the same thing because my parents both died within the past couple of years. And I did some interviews with my mom but not very many, and I did none with my dad. And that's it. The stories that they had are gone now.
Jenny Doan: On that same point, we do Quilts of Valor for servicemen. And somebody said to me, "Well, your dad is the right age. Did he serve in the war, or was he a veteran?" And I said, "No, he wasn't a veteran. He just served in the Korean War." And they said, "Well, then he's a veteran." And I said, "I thought a veteran had to be somebody who was in it for life, that that was their career." And she's like, "No, they just had to serve in a war."
Jenny Doan: So, they gave me a printout of questions to ask my dad. I called him up and I asked him all these questions. Do you know I learned more about my dad in that 15 minutes than I had ever known about him? He'd never talked about his service in the Korean War to me. Why would you talk about that with your kids? But it just wasn't part of our daily lives and what he talked about. And I just felt so thrilled that because of these quilts for veterans, I learned so much about my dad, where he served and what he did. And he was like 17, 18 years old. It was just so fascinating, and again that comes because of a quilt.