In preparation for the “Anything-But-Plain Jane” story in the October 2011 issue of American Patchwork & Quilting (available on newsstands and at quilt shops now), I chatted with quilter, author, and the original “Janiac” Brenda Manges Papadakis. Her book Dear Jane: The Two Hundred Twenty-Five Patterns from the 1863 Jane A. Stickle Quilt (EZ Quilting by Wrights; 1996) has inspired quilters all over the world to make their own versions of Jane A. Stickle’s quilt, Sampler. Read on to learn more about Brenda and her book. Check out a slideshow of Dear Jane quilts on AllPeopleQuilt.com.
MC: What did you first think of Jane A. Stickle’s quilt?
BMP: I saw the quilt in Plain and Fancy: Vermont’s People and Their Quilts by Richard Cleveland and Donna Bister (Quilt Digest Press; 1991), and it took my breath away. So many of the blocks weren’t familiar to me, and I was impressed by the geometry, especially the triangles. Most of the blocks were unique to her quilt. But, to be honest, I had no interest in making or teaching miniature blocks at first. And I didn’t care for brown fabrics! Now they’re my favorites. Everything comes full circle, I guess. I started drafting blocks from the photograph in Plain and Fancy and thinking about Jane and what would have been happening in her life when she made the quilt. The letters are an outgrowth of my questions.
MC: What was your first Dear Jane class like?
BMP: I started my first Dear Jane class in 1992. At the time, we called the blocks Baby Janes. Each month we made four blocks and focused on a single technique. My students helped me name the blocks. If a student’s block name was chosen, I bought her 1⁄2 yard of fabric. Eventually, my students said they wanted to make the whole quilt. I laughed because I was teaching middle school and working at a quilt shop and had no intention of teaching all the blocks. I told my students, “I have a life.” Later that year, I got permission from The Bennington Museum in Vermont (where the original quilt is located) to draft the remaining blocks and eventually the triangles. I had no idea Dear Jane would become my life! I’m so blessed to have this journey.
MC: Thousands of quilters from all over the world have interpreted this quilt using your book. You’ve helped design two Dear Jane fabric collections for Windham Fabrics. There’s also Electric Quilt software for the Dear Jane blocks and Dear Jane acrylic templates from EZ Quilting. What do you think of this phenomenon?
BMP: I’m just a quilter who saw a picture of a quilt. It wasn’t that I had any vision to start a phenomenon. I just wanted to distribute the blocks to quilters who wanted them so they could make their own versions, and a book seemed like the best way to do that. It wasn’t until after the book was published and I started teaching that I realized people wanted to make this whole quilt, exactly as it is! I still pinch myself at times. I used to think Dear Jane would be interesting to about 5 percent of the quilters. Now, I believe everyone comes to Jane in his/her own time. There is so much to be learned in making this quilt, and all the techniques can be applied to other quilts as well. Another reason, I believe is the interest we have in the Civil War. We’re coming up on the 150th Anniversary of the War, and we want to know more about it.
MC: What can we learn from the quilt?
BMP: This quilt affords us so many chances to learn and improve our skills. I’m a big believer in the Dear Jane motto: “Finished is better than perfect.” I remind my students that quilting is supposed to be a joyful experience. Sometimes we tend to beat ourselves up. I believe that every time you make a block, you should do your very best that you can that day. This quilt is a learning quilt. By the time you make 10 more blocks, you’ll be discovering a new technique and learning something more challenging. Enjoy the journey!
Jane was not really a technician. She was a designer. Her work was not always perfect. She simply wanted to translate the ideas she had into fabric. I use her as an example that we don’t have to be perfect either. Just look at how much we love her quilt!
MC: What tips do you have for making Dear Jane quilts?
BMP: I’ve made about a dozen Dear Jane-inspired quilts, but I have not yet re-created the entire quilt. I’m working on one right now though. The one thing I always do to figure out how to make a Dear Jane block is to start with the center. If I can work out the center of the block, then the rest of it falls into place. There are many tips at dearjane.com
and in the software. The Dear Jane subscribers’ list is a wealth of information. Almost 2000 people from around the world are available daily to help you make your own Jane. They are also there to help and encourage you in all aspects of your life. I think they are the best group on the internet. They are the list that knows everything!
MC: What do you know about Jane A. Stickle?
BMP: I think she did go to school, because there are records that her father left 25 percent of his estate for her and her brothers’ education. At that time, many women weren’t educated. If they were, they could be teachers and nurses. I don’t know how much math education she had, and I don’t know how much was just natural talent. She’s just super gifted.
Her husband wasn’t in the Civil War, and she did not have children that fought. But I think the war affected her life, because of the fact that she stitched “In War Time 1863” and “Pieces 5602” in one of the corner blocks. In times of turmoil, we can always rely on math and science. Maybe she felt that she could not control what was happening in the world, but she could count the pieces she put in her quilt—she could control what was in that little sphere. I like to think she was saying, “I’m in charge here. These are my designs.”
MC: What quirks have you noticed about the blocks?
BMP: I’ve drafted all the blocks to be 4-1/2” square, but the blocks of the original quilt actually range from 3 to 5” square. When I was measuring the blocks while drafting them, I realized they are different sizes. I think that’s the miracle of Jane’s talent —she would add sashing around a block until it was the right size. She was really consistent with the triangles. I think she used little samples of fabric, and this affected the size she made her blocks—sample cards were about the size of a 3x5” index card.
MC: What have been some of the more creative Dear Jane themes you’ve seen through the years?
BMP: One lady made a quilt with a woman whose gown was made with Dear Jane blocks . In another quilt, the blocks were placed in a circle, radiating from the center. To me, all the quilts are beautiful and as unique as their maker.
MC: How do you think Dear Jane has impacted quilters?
BMP: When I received my copy of the book I started crying. My husband asked me what’s wrong. I told him, “Now everybody in the world will know about my relationship with Jane Stickle.” He said, “I thought that was our goal!” It is just that I had put my heart into this project, and I realized it was there for the world to see.
I’ve sent books to about 36 or 37 countries in world. I thought this journey was about getting everybody the blocks, but it’s not. It’s about a community of quilters who have created friendships and bonded over this quilt. The joy for me is when Janiacs gather at quilt shows and various events and share the Dear Jane quilts they’re making and the fabrics they’re using. It’s like a worldwide friendship circle. It’s all about those friendships, the quilters, and their work. I’m just a messenger.
If I have one message for quilters, it is to keep a journal. That is the lesson I learned while studying the diaries of the 19th-century women. I can tell you Jane’s story, and mine, but yours is the one that is important to those who love you. It doesn’t have to be a fancy diary–notebook paper will do. Just write a note beside the blocks you make. One entry I read said simply, “It rained all day, so I quilted.” I thought of that lady and the difficult life she had at that time, and I cried for her.
Visit dearjane.com to learn more about Brenda Manges Papadakis, purchase the Dear Jane book, or get tips and tricks for making the quilt.