Elizabeth Travis Johnson taught sewing for 34 years at Watkins College of Art, Design & Film in Nashville, then known as Watkins Institute. Situated above the old W.T. Grant store on Church Street, Watkins offered a 3-year sewing program. Students met 1-2 hours per week in the evenings, many of them mothers with small children. During the first year, students learned pattern drafting and French handsewing. In the second year, students added smocking (including picking up dots by hand). By year three, students learned to tailor a child’s coat, and they also brought their own projects and sewed with their close sewing friends. Watkins College continues to this day including a recent merger with Belmont University, though the sewing class was never the same without Mrs. Johnson.
Mrs. Johnson once said, “I feel that I was born with a needle in my hand. My mother noted in my baby book: ‘She liked to make doll dresses and set in sleeves well at age 4.’” She also recalls a memory from the sixth grade “when I should have been studying I would hide paper in my geography book and sketch new dresses to fit paper dolls. I like to design, but do not like geography.”
Mrs. Johnson also remembers when Watkins recruited her, having been a student of their sewing program, to become an instructor. “When they asked me to teach, I was thrilled. My husband, Glenn said ‘No,’ but I convinced him to let me try for one year just to get it out of my system.” That first year, in 1947, she recalled, “there was not much of an interest in smocking. It did not come into its own until the pleater came along. I had the very first one in Nashville. It was given to me as a present by my class and it cost $21.95.” Today, we use the same machine and they sell for several hundred dollars.
An interest in smocking was on the rise as Mrs. Johnson finished her career at Watkins and began to teach in small heirloom shops across the country. We found a funny quote that is more relevant today than when it was written in 1983 for Creative Product News. “Smocking…it’s a growth industry…and a pleasant, relaxing, restoring switch from a steel-hard world of high tech. Psychologists point out that the 1980s concentration on traditional needle and fabric arts may well be a reaction to our computerized, technology-oriented society.”
After she retired from Watkins, Mrs. Johnson traveled around the country teaching the discipline she loved so much. Lezette Thomason and the other Children’s Corner founders had a closed relationship with Mrs. Johnson as former students. They approached her about drafting patterns for their fledgling business, Children’s Corner, and this relationship continued for years. One of our shop’s teachers and pattern designer, Trisha Smith was a dear friend of Mrs. Johnson’s, and traveled with her after her husband, Glenn Johnson, passed away. She says Elizabeth was “honored to be asked” to be involved with Children’s Corner. “She wanted the love of smocking and fine children’s sewing to be continued,” Trisha says. The Bishop was a favorite of Elizabeth’s – the Gwen version is named after her only child.”
More than 50 of the earliest patterns in the Children’s Corner catalog were designed by Mrs. Johnson. She was instrumental in setting the foundation for the design aesthetic and rationale we are guided by today, 40 years later. We are honored and grateful for Mrs. Johnson’s contributions.
The Memphis Ledger - April 29, 1985
Brentwood Journal - February 5, 1986
The Tennessean - July 26, 1981
Creative Products News - June, 1983