Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Janis Pearson's Quilt

Stars, 1972, by Janis M. Pearson
One of the quilts on display in my special exhibit of 1970s quilts at QuiltCon was a quilt made by Janis Pearson in 1972. Janis is a friend and fellow guild mate here in the Portland area, and I first got to know her in 2010, when she shared her stunning, original whitework quilt with the Oregon Quilt Project documentation team during the project's first year of documenting quilts.

I remember thinking it was an antique quilt because of the fine hand work and dense quilting stitches, but it was so bright and white, like new. I was working at the photography station. So, I asked her where she found the quilt. That's when I found out she made it. My jaw was on the floor.

Janis Pearson's 1972 Stars quilt was displayed prominently at QuiltCon
When Janis wanted to donate her whitework quilt to Latimer Quilt & Textile Center, I happily assisted; brought the quilt to Tillamook, got the paperwork rolling, and helped facilitate the donation. It was a very generous donation, and a thrilling acquisition for the collection at Latimer, which already had a stellar collection of Oregon made quilts.

Around the same time, I started collecting 1970s quilts, and Janis generously gave me her calico Stars quilt in 2011. You can read about it here.

Janis Pearson's 1972 Stars quilt was an important acquisition from the get-go because there was a link to the maker. I could speak with her directly about the quilt, and what it was like making quilts in the period. In my first feature article about 1970s quilts, "Quilting in the 1970s: When Bed Quilts Became Works of Art" in American Quilter Magazine (AQS May, 2013), I interviewed Janis, along with a few other quiltmakers who made quilts in the 1970s.

"There was a whole lot of sewing going on in Portland, but it was primarily dressmaking," said Janis, a self-taught quiltmaker, in the interview. When asked about polyester, she said, "I don't recall wearing double knit polyester clothing. It was heavy and stiff and did not drape well." However, I did sew double knit polyester work outfits for my mom." She remembers every store in Portland at the time that sold cotton fabric suitable for quilting. Many of those were dress calicoes, and her quilt certainly has a wonderful selection. The list of shops did not make it in to the article, but we have it!

Each of the 48, eight-pointed LeMoyne Stars includes diamonds in a selection of colorful calico fabrics, appliqu├ęd, with decorative feather stitching between patches and a blanket stitch outlining each star. The stars appear in eight rows, with six stars in each row, and a total of 384 diamond-shaped calico patches. The placement of colors varies in each star, giving the quilt a dynamic sense of movement.

Inscriptions were not uncommon on quilts made throughout American quilt history, but it is rare to find a quilt signed and dated on the front, in the lower right-hand corner, as a painting would be signed. That was how Janis signed her quilt, with an embroidered inscription. I think it's brilliant, and it is wonderful to know how her work progressed as she continued making quilts through the years.

This type of inscription may seem like a small detail, but it's very important. There were few rules, and quilts were being viewed as works of art, so there was really no reason not to sign a quilt like any other work of art. It just hadn't been done often in the past. There had been many inscribed quilts, some with hundreds of names, but very few signed like a painting. Even today, quiltmakers tend to label the back of the quilt rather than signing the front.

"It was an honor to see the quilt I made and slept under for several years hanging in its special spot," said Janis when asked about seeing her quilt in the show. "I would see people examining it closely. They were probably saying they had clothes made out of some of those calico prints – I know I did."


  1. Beautiful! Thank you for sharing; it brought back calico memories for sure; what a nice place to be. :)

  2. Yes, these are among the few cottons I remember finding in the early 1970s. Is the background fabric also cotton?
    I agree labeling the quilt on the back is more common today. Perhaps only the quilter feels like she can sign her work on the front. I wonder if some of the back labels were put on by later generations, especially in view of the encouragement to label our quilts begun by the state documentation projects. I have seen several antique and vintage quilts on the internet that have embroidered or fabric lettered names and dates on the front, sometimes incorporated with the design.

  3. If you don't mind, what does the cover of the magazine look like? I believe I have it and this would save time when trying to find it. Thanks.

  4. That hand embroidery is so intricate!

  5. I recognize some of those fabrics and remember sewing with them. Lovely quilt!

    1. When we were in Austin, I was calling these floral prints "sweet little calicoes" - and later, when I was talking with Carolyn Ducey of IQSCM, she pointed to a print in another quilt and called it a "sweet little calico" -- so we've coined a new term! And it's one of those fun terms, not one of those dreadful terms made up by the quilt history police to assert themselves and put people in their place. Pure fun, and love. "Sweet little calicoes" they are!

    2. Yes, we called them calicos when we made our peasant dresses from them in the late 1960s, early 1970s.

  6. I remember those calicoes! That awful yellow actually looks good in the quilt. For some reason that yellow has always grated on my eyes