Mary Bellis




Mary Bellis




Mary Bellis


Susan Steiner

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Nancy O'Bryant Puentes


Newark, Delaware


Julie Henderson


Susan Steiner (SS): [tape begins in mid-sentence.] …Steiner and I'm here at the Q.S.O.S. [Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories.] training session for Ladybug Quilters. It is April 20, 2002, and I'm interviewing Mary Bellis. Mary, this is a beautiful object that you've brought. Please tell me about it.

Mary Bellis (MB): Well, it's one of the few I have at the house. Most of them I've given away. But what happened was I quilted for a few years, and two things: one, I had never done curved piecing and two; I had never made anything for myself. Everybody in the family had something, friends had something, Mary had nothing. So, I decided it was time to do those two things. So I did. This is my first curved piecing and my first quilt I made for myself. It was so big I had to have Sue Whittaker quilt it on that big machine because I certainly couldn't do it on my sewing machine.

SS: So, when Sue Whittaker did the quilting, it was long-arm quilting?

MB: Yeah, the long-arm because this is just way too--you couldn't fit it under the--

SS: Do you have any idea what size this is?

MB: It covers my king-sized bed like a bedspread, like you would--

SS: All the way to the floor?

MB: And it's got a pillow tuck and it covers the pillows. I never measured it. It's just huge. But what happened, essentially, was I did the center part and of course that wasn't big enough. I did the center design. Then I had to make it bigger and then it wasn't long enough. Then I put the pillow tuck on. Then artistically it didn't look right so I had to put the big borders on. I also did this. This takes forever to do. I forget the name of it. What's it? Do you know what --

SS: Seminal piecing.

MB: Seminal piecing. I had gone to a class and bought a book and my family said, 'That's wonderful.' And I'd say. 'Just enjoy looking at it because it's not something I'm going to do too often.' But it just sort of--it grew. I started with the center part, and I laid it out on the bed and it wasn't big enough. I decided I had to have the pillow tuck because it wasn't long enough. Then I had to put the border on. Well, anyway.

SS: Mary, you said this grew. Is that how you normally do your quilts?

MB: No, usually I have a set pattern I do. But as I said, this was more of an artistic thing that I was doing for me. I could do anything I wanted with it, and I didn't have to worry about what anybody else thought about it. It's mine.

SS: So, from the outset you knew that this was going to be yours.

MB: Oh, yes. Well, these are my colors. The other thing was that I was going to have just two colors on the borders, but I didn't realize how much fabric this part takes.

SS: That's the deep purple part.

MB: The part that goes around the fan. That really chews up the fabrics. I hadn't bought enough. I was just going to use the pink and the purple and I had to get the turquoise to go with it.

SS: So, you did what you had to do. Now is this fabric that you bought especially for this?

MB: Well, I had the border fabric. I bought that and then everything else was bought to go in with it.

SS: So, the butterfly fabric was--

MB: Yeah, no this is what I bought to make my quilt and then I went and got the rest to go with it.

SS: So, none of these fabrics were in your stash.

MB: Oh, no. None of these were stash fabrics.

SS: You said that this was a quilt for yourself; that the others had been given away. To whom did you give them?

MB: The very first quilt I made, which was just a Trip Around the World that was funny, because I went to a class [laughs.] and she said, 'Make a lap quilt or a baby quilt.' I said. 'I don't need one.' And I ended up making a queen-size quilt that fits my king-size bed. I finished it and my husband says, 'That's mine.' [laughs.] We sleep under that--we don't sleep under this. This is just the bedspread. I take it off at night. That was my first quilt. I ended up making this humungous thing out of the class, and everybody's looking at me, thinking funny thoughts. You know if you don't worry about it, it's fun. If you worry about it--so if it screws up, it screws up: I did it. It may or may not be perfect, but we sleep under it; it's good for sleeping under. So, all of them have been given away as I said. Or then everybody asked for them and so forth.

SS: So your husband claimed one.

MB: He claimed the first one, yes.

SS: And who else claimed one?

MB: And of course, my daughter had to have one. And then of course when she got married, her wedding gift had to be one. And then I made one for my son and daughter-in-law. And then they moved and changed colors and would I make another one. [laughs.] And then I have three grandchildren and I have a list. I never get the last one taken off. There's three on the list now.

SS: So, you literally have a list.

MB: Oh, yeah. I literally have a list in my sewing room of who wants quilts.

SS: Your husband claimed one that was already made.

MB: That was the first one I made, yeah.

SS: But the others that you have they have said, 'Make me a quilt'?

MB: Yeah.

SS: And have they said what they wanted, or have you come up with something for them?

MB: Usually I at least find out colors. Then I decide on the pattern. My daughter-in-law wants a Double Wedding Ring and I'm getting--she doesn't know it, but I'm thinking about making her one, now that I've done my own curved piecing. But I have to feel that I can do it.

SS: Now that you've done one curved piece--well, tell me first what you were doing before. This curved piece represented a kind of a break for you, so what were you doing before?

MB: Anything that just used squares things like that. Straight cutting or some triangles and things, but not--

SS: Is this a new pathway for you? Are you going to continue with this or is--

MB: Oh, now I do anything. Now I'm not afraid to try anything. I really have gotten to where I just jump in. If I want to try something, I try it. I try one block. If I find, I can't do it I can try and fiddle with it. But most usually I can do it and just go do it. I don't worry about what somebody--if I take it to show and tell, I don't worry what they're going to say about it. I really don't care, because they don't have to live with it.

SS: Now show and tell is what?

MB: At the quilt guilds, where you hold them up and show them.

SS: Show it to everybody in the guild.

MB: Yeah. If anybody would criticize, I don't care. I mean, I don't care what they think about it; it doesn't matter.

SS: Why do you bring them to show and tell?

MB: Because everybody else does. They can see mine. But what I'm saying, I don't worry about criticism. I just do it, and this is me.

SS: And if you're happy with it, that's fine.

MB: This is me.

SS: This looks machine quilted to me; is it?

MB: Yeah, as I said, she had the longarm machine.

SS: Oh, that's right, Sue did. So--

MB: I had the thing that I wanted--

SS: The pattern?

MB: I had a--what do you call them, plastic template. And she just followed the template I had.

SS: You provided Sue with the template.

MB: Oh, yeah. I knew what I wanted.

SS: Do you normally machine quilt yourself?

MB: I have arthritis in my hands. I don't hand quilt at all.

SS: Have you ever hand quilted?

MB: No, I can't do it.

SS: You're an experienced machine quilter.

MB: Well, I got to finish before I die at my age. [laughs.] Got to work fast. Sorry! But I really can't hand quilt. It hurts too much.

SS: I guess it doesn't matter to you--or does it matter it you--or what do you think of hand quilting versus machine quilting?

MB: I think both are fine. I don't have any problem either way. I don't think one's better than the other, either. It's just what I can do. I do what I can do.

SS: Mary, you said before that you will do a test block, try out the block and see if you like it.

MB: See if I can cut it right and put it together right because I did that with this, too. I had some scraps and I made it to see if I could get it to fit.

SS: Do you have a collection of blocks that you decided this is only as far I'm going with it or--

MB: If something screws up then I use them for homeless quilts, you know. If something isn't right, that's what I do with it. Sort of got into the homeless quilt thing.

SS: So, the homeless quilts are the ones that the guild talks about--

MB: I'm the one who started that. You just put anything together and they sleep on them. I just – old pieces of fabric that I don't want or many pieced--

SS: So, you said you started the homeless quilt activity. Tell me about that. How did you get the idea? When did it start?

MB: Let's see. I don't remember. I guess it started at about seven or eight years ago. Oh I know somebody said to me, 'Oh, somebody died.' It was like the aunt of a neighbor. She said, 'You're a quilter, Mary, aren't you?' She brought all this fabric but a lot of it was not cotton. It was crapola. And Make a Difference Day was coming up, that's what happened. I now remember. I forget. So, what I did was I put one of these together just sewed some of these odds and ends together. I think I cut strips and put them together. And I took it to the quilt meeting, and I said, 'This is for Make a Difference Day. I'm going to make a quilt for the homeless.' Somehow, I had met this gal that worked with the homeless. She used to be homeless and she'd take stuff to the homeless. So, it was show and tell and that was really funny, because I opened up this quilt and everybody just sort of looked sort of funny at me. I went, 'This is supposed to be an ugly quilt.' [laughs.] And it is. I explained to them and then I got them started doing it. The amount of fabric people gave me--I still get it. I have people still bringing me fabric that I give to--now that Laura's taken it over, passed it on.

SS: Any idea of how many quilts have been made?

MB: Three hundred and fifty, at least, since we started. But when we started there were like three hundred seventy-five homeless on the streets and there are now over a thousand. I still take stuff out to the shelter and stuff.

SS: This is the shelter in Wilmington [Delaware.]?

MB: I take it to Sojourners. I take clothing. Sometimes I collect clothing at church. If I feel like it I collect stuff and take it out to the shelter. Or if I clean house once in a while-- that's every five years I clean house and take it out to the shelter.

SS: So that's quite a socially responsible task. Is that how you see quilting?

MB: No, I thought that quilting is my relaxation. I worked for fifty-two years. When I finished working, 'What am I going to do?' You know, obviously I wasn't going to sit around all the time. I wanted some sort of hobby. Somebody suggested going to a quilt class and I did. That's where I met Sara Jane, she and I have become fast friends. We met at that class, and we've just been fast friends for about ten years since we met. I started quilting, I didn't look back. When I'm finished one job I never look back. I go on to the next job. When I retired, I didn't look back. Some people cry, I just clap 'I'm free.' This is what I started doing. If I'm stressed or something the best thing, I can do is quilt. This relaxes me.

SS: So, quilting is part therapy for you.

MB: Yes, it makes me happy. It's time to make me happy, and that's what I do.

SS: So, you got started on quilting through a class.

MB: I took a class; makes sense. In fact, I think my first class I took I think either Elaine taught it, or she was in the class. Elaine Ventry. One of the first classes I did do a table cover, a little table cover. It was at the Hive and Elaine was working at the quilt store. I forget the name of that old quilt store, before they opened The Hive.

SS: The one on Kirkwood Highway, it's down near--

MB: It's The Hive now but before they had a store that closed. Then they opened The Hive and I started at the old store.

SS: Have you taken other classes?

MB: I've taken some, yes.

SS: So, is that your primary way of learning about new things?

MB: No. I read or sometimes I watch TV or talk to my friends. It depends. Everything for me is I have to like what I see. I'm a visual person.

SS: So, if you see something you like and you decide to do it, that's what gives you the spark to do it.

MB: Yes, something I see that I like.

SS: What is it that attracts you to something; what is it that has that effect?

MB: For quilting?

SS: Mmhm.

MB: I like--well, you can see I like bright colors. I like design, because I used to paint. So I like design. It has to make some design.

SS: Any particular designs that are your favorite?

MB: Well, the easiest one I think is Trip Around the World. [laughs.] I made a bunch of baby quilts. I made five or six last years and most all of them were Trip Around the World. I'm making one now that's Trip Around the World but it's for a friend that's a nun. If that was finished, I would have brought that today, but I'm not done quilting it. I did a quilt Around the World--she wanted pink. What I did was made the center line in both directions the same fabric, and so it's a cross. Then I've made the border that same fabric. What that has done is made the Trip Around the World a background. And the cross stands out because it's one of the darker fabrics. I'm quilting it and then I'm going to have gold rays? going out as part of the quilting. So, I use a lot because I can play with it a lot.

SS: So, you planned that design from the beginning.

MB: Oh, yeah.

SS: It didn't just happen--

MB: No, no. That was a plan, it's a single-bed quilt that I'm making. I'm quilting it on my machine.

SS: That sounds beautiful. So, you've given some quilts to family and some quilts to friends, and finally a quilt to yourself. Anybody else that has been on the receiving end of your quilts?

MB: Well, like somebody had a fiftieth anniversary and I made a little wall hanging, and I had a grandniece, my nephew's daughter got married and I made her a wall hanging for her marriage. A couple anniversaries that I've gone to, that I've made wall hangings because I have one of those machines that embroider and can put words on. So, like the one for Sister, I have her name on the top "Sister Micki."

SS: That you did with the machine.

MB: With the machine, yes.

SS: So, what kind of machine do you use?

MB: I have two machines, but I basically use my Janome because it does more. But I have a Singer also that I can use.

SS: Your Janome has computer gadgets, it's not just a straight up [inaudible.]

MB: Well, the Singer does a lot too, does a lot of different stitching; use a lot of different stitching on there too.

SS: Sounds like you're really versatile with a machine. Had you sewn before or--

MB: When my kids were younger, I sewed clothes, mostly for my daughter and myself. It was a little more economical, obviously. But I didn't sew a lot over the years, no. I mean my family didn't. My mother had an old treadle machine, but she never sewed a whole lot.

SS: So, most of your expertise on the machine has been gathered in the quilting phase of your life.

MB: Yes.

SS: Tell me a little bit about what makes a quilt great for you and what makes a quilter great?

MB: That they've done something that they enjoy doing. It's a love. To me, quilting is you're loving what you're doing and you're showing love to someone else when you give it to them. I mean, it's a love thing for me; that's me. I love the people I've given quilts to. People say, 'would I do it for money?' and I say, 'Hell, no!' It's not me. I have to want to do it. Not I have to do it; I want to do it.

SS: So, someone in your family can say, 'Mary, I'd like a quilt,' and there's no problem.

MB: Well, we have to ask questions. What size, colors and then you go on the list. When I get to you on the list you get it. Unless it's some special occasion like a fiftieth anniversary or a or twenty-fifth something I might put it at the top--

SS: So, things might come to the top of the heap.

MB: Well, if they're really important. My sister, when she had her fiftieth anniversary what I did was I got photographs from her family and I made a Double Irish Chain and, in the blocks,--I had white blocks. I had photographs starting with them as small children (my sister and brother-in-law). Then the center was their wedding picture and then their children and their children's families. That was king-sized. Everybody in the guild laughs at me because I'm always making some humungous, but they had a king-sized bed. So, we had forty-eight pictures which were old. This was before the new ways of putting pictures on. It was an hour a picture. Forty-eight pictures.

SS: Oh, my goodness. That was a labor of love.

MB: But it was her fiftieth anniversary. Everything else got put aside until that got done. I like to finish. That's another thing, is I don't start ten projects. I finish one. I like to finish.

SS: So, you just generally have one project at a time going.

MB: I don't like to have a lot of projects. I have fabric for the next ones. I maybe have fabric for the next hundred, but I don't want to start that until I finish this or else, I'll never finish anything.

SS: So, you'll lose your place or lose the design?

MB: Well, I'll lose the fabric or-- [laughs.]

SS: You mean literally lose.

MB: I'll forget where I put it. I'm getting old.

SS: Do you have a particular space in your house--

MB: I have a fairly good-sized room that's my room. I went to the used furniture store and bought two dressers. They're filled, and then I have some other containers with fabric. Then I bought one of these tables that you can fold but that it's a cutting table, but on a smaller quilt I can also layer it. And I have one of those things that shoots the plastic things in for layering.

SS: Like a staple gun, you mean?

MB: It's like a staple.

SS: Or a basting gun?

MB: Yes, it's the plastic like when you get when you buy stuff - plastic on the tags. That's what I use. I don't use pins anymore because again my thumbs can't handle them. So, this gun is great. I just point the gun and it puts all three layers together.

SS: And it holds them firmly.

MB: Oh yes. It works well. It did for this. Well, I didn't have to do it for this.

SS: You didn't have to baste this one?

MB: Well, no. That machine has things in it that strip ties and then she layers it right on the machine, so you don't have to do it.

SS: Now that you have one quilt done with a longarm would you be inclined to do that again?

MB: Well, I've had more than one done, because my son and daughter-in-law had a queen-sized. That was too big for the machine. So, I've had about three or four done longarm.

SS: So, there's probably more--

MB: But no, I have used her. She does a good job, and with big ones I just can't fit them.

SS: Did anyone in your family quilt?

MB: Nope. They didn't sew; they didn't quilt. My mother had a machine. She sewed and repaired things but she never really had time to sew. She had to work because my father died when I was two. There were five of us. I started working when I was five. So when I retired, I had worked fifty-two years.

SS: My gosh. What kind of work did you do when you were five?

MB: We had a soda fountain - hot dogs and hamburgers. So, I started selling penny candy on Saturdays before the kids went to the movie next door. Then on Saturdays I would peel a hundred pounds of onions. I would wash dishes. By the time I was seven I would open the store. My mother would work until twelve, one o'clock so I would get up in the morning, eat breakfast and open the store and make coffee and serve coffee and toast to the morning customers before I went to school.

SS: By the time you were seven.

MB: By the time I was seven. By the time I was seven I made the best banana split in town. [laughs.] At least I thought it was the best. I liked it. But, yeah, I started working when I was five, literally.

SS: My goodness. Independent and self-reliant.

MB: Oh, yeah. That's why I don't worry about people thinking about what I do, because it's mine.

SS: Completely yours. Do you any of your children or their children quilt?

MB: No, my daughter has three children: three-year-old twins and a six-month-old baby, so she doesn't sew at all right now. She does a lot of the stamping kind of thing. She's very artistic. She wouldn't have a place or time to be able to sew right now.

SS: So right now, it's your job to make quilts for them.

MB: I don't care. Nobody made them for me. It's not a matter of you have to do it this way; it's like you do what's right for you.

SS: Do most of the quilts that you make end up as bed quilts or something else?

MB: As I've said, I've made wall hangings for fiftieth anniversaries and things like that. Like one fiftieth anniversary gala of a couple in our church and I had the family sign the front and all the other guests signed the back and things like that. But I've done a lot of baby quilts. They're not all humungous. I made six baby quilts last year.

SS: Six in one year?

MB: Oh yeah.

SS: For family?

MB: Well, my daughter had a baby and my neighbor's two sons who grew up with my kids – the one had twins and the other one. That was funny. I'd made two quilts because I said the one was pregnant so, 'I'm going to make two, then when the other one gets pregnant, they can each have the same one,' and that one was having twins. So, I had to make a third one for the other son. [laughs.] And my pastor had a baby, and I don't remember, but I just made them. This is what I enjoy doing. My neighbor said, 'I don't mind you making these because I know it's the one thing that you have the most fun doing.' So, she was happy for her kids to get them.

SS: Do you have other crafts that you do?

MB: I take a lot of pictures. I'm a photographer; I like to take pictures. But I used to knit; I used to crochet. I used to do crewel and that kind of stuff. But the sewing, the finger thing has gotten to me. This is something I can do.

SS: You said you used to paint if I remember correctly.

MB: Yes, I used to paint. I don't paint anymore now. When I had kids, it was not something I could do. Then I just got away from it. But I still have a couple paintings.

SS: Do you paint fabric?

MB: Well now this is my artistic outlet: putting colors together. Most people like my colors. They're bright but I like them.

SS: How long did it take you to make this quilt? Do you know?

MB: Because I didn't quilt it, about six or eight months. Because you know this border takes a long time.

SS: The Seminole piece border.

MB: The Seminole piece border. See I had to do the border and then I had to do around it that took a long time. I love this. You know I bought the book for the Seminole piece thing, and I had that on the bed while I was watching TV when it's cold, I watch it in bed at night and cuddle and I look through books and I would look at this book every night. I knew I was going to use it; I just didn't know when. I knew which one I wanted to use and everything. Then I decided, 'oh, this is where I want to use it.' But for six months I looked through that book. I still look through it sometimes, because I love it. That's one of the few books that I really enjoy the designs in it.

SS: I was going to ask you if books were an inspiration.

MB: Well, I use books for ideas of patterns and things.

SS: Not so much how to do a thing.

MB: And how to do--oh, yes, sometimes I need to know how to do. I bought templates for the fans--the plastic templates and all. I put them together in my own design. But there are some, like how you do Trip Around the World – you have to read how to do it. It also tells you how much fabric you need. There's things you need to know.

SS: So, do you use the guidebook for the fabric--

MB: For the fabric and some, like Double Irish Chain, you need to know how to piece it, put it together and stuff. You need the book some of the time.

SS: Do you use magazines as a resource too?

MB: Not really. I'm dyslexic, so anything I read goes 'whoosh.' [makes whoosh noise.] I might look at--I did it for years, I bought, and I had pictures; a lot of the magazines had patterns I'd never use. There was one magazine my stepdaughter--I forget what the name of it is--last year and that had some patterns that--and I did keep those magazines. But I don't really look at them that much. I'll look at books and I like to look at quilts and go to quilt shows and stuff.

SS: Do you go to many quilt shows?

MB: I go to the one in Lancaster every year. One of these days I'm going to go down to Houston [Texas.]. I really want to go to Houston. I want to see that one. My former roommate lives in El Paso, so I could make it a fun trip. I used to go down and work sometimes in Houston for my last job.

SS: That would be a nice [inaudible.] trip.

MB: It would be interesting. When I retired, one of the young men I used to go down there and work with--I sent out an email to everybody saying I was retiring, and it was a pleasure working with you all. He sent me his address and phone number in Padre Island and invited me to come to his ranch. I thought that was just the nicest thing. He was young; I was in my fifties, and he was probably in his thirties. For him to reach out like that--I didn't cry sending my mail out, but the mail I got back, I cried and cried. [laughs.] It was awful.

SS: Did you go?

MB: No, I never--I've not had a reason to go down to Houston since then.

SS: Well, it looks like when you go to Houston, I'm sure you will--

MB: I don't remember his name anymore. It was just such a nice gesture.

SS: Have you ever entered a quilt in a quilt show?

MB: No, I'm not in it for competition; I'm in it for me.

SS: So that's not on your horizon.

MB: Well, if we had a show, I'd put this in.

SS: You mean like Ladybugs [Quilt Guild, Newark, Delaware.] used to have--

MB: Yes, I would put it in. I don't care if they judge it or not.

SS: Were you a member of Ladybugs when they used to do Cecil County Community College shows?

MB: Oh, I worked those.

SS: Did you put quilts in then?

MB: Never. It's just not that important to me.

SS: When you worked the shows, what did you do?

MB: I used to help hang them. And I'll tell you that is an exhausting job on the day before you go and hang them all.

SS: So, twenty-four hours before the general public comes in you guys are up there hanging. How did you do that?

MB: Well, I didn't get on the ladders, because I'm so old. But I'd be the one keeping them off the floor and handing them up.

SS: Were you a docent at the show?

MB: I wore the gloves and if people wanted to see things, I'd turn them. I always worked the show.

SS: Did you work all the days if I remember--

MB: No. What we'd do, my neighbor and I--Judy's one of my neighbors and Shirley lives across the street from me; she and I would go down. We'd pick the same day, and we'd pick the same hours too. A lot of times I did the taking the money too. I like that better. So, if we could get the same hours and then we'd eat lunch and see the show. We'd do it all on one day.

SS: So, you had a wonderful day.

MB: Oh, yes. Well, you only worked two hours when you worked the show. Two or three hours at the most and then you have four hours to see the show and a half hour to eat. [laughs.] Plan your time wisely. I always thought it was too far away, the Cecil County show. I still say [that.] if we have a show we should have it in this area, because more people would come to see it. But that's my own personal opinion.

SS: You said you liked taking the money that was collected and giving the tickets, what was it about that job that appealed to you?

MB: I could sit down. I have a bad knee. I don't do well standing for long periods of time.

SS: That's a very practical reason. I want to say tell me what you think about this [Quilters' S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories [inaudible.]. What do you think about preserving the quilt history?

MB: I think it's a good idea. A friend of mine recently gave me a quilt top that was very old. She was moving and gave me this quilt top. And this is unbelievable she said, 'Oh here, you can use this for homeless quilts.' Well, the quilt top was made by her husband's grandmother, 1940's and 50's; the fabric is old. I said, 'Jean, I'm going to find out what it's worth. I'm going to sell it and you can take the money and give it to charity. But are you sure you don't want to keep it?' I said, 'I'm not a hand quilter and somebody should have this that's going to be able to deal with it.' But it's very beautiful. So, I think I'm going to bring it to one of the meetings. But I know who made it and I know it's either late 1940's or late 1950's and I think it's important, so whoever gets it will know who made it and--

SS: Do you know its history because you talked to her?

MB: Yes, I had to ask her. I called her about it. I asked her if she knew when it was made and who made it.

SS: You said it was important to save the history, why?

MB: There are very few things in this world anymore that are one of a kind, done by people with what probably has to be love or some creativity of their soul, and I think that's important. I think everything we have now is mass-produced, a lot of it ugly. I'm sure there are fifty million of these shirts in the world just like I'm wearing, just an ordinary striped shirt. Quilts are one of a kind. When I took the class--I took a class one time and we made a Double Irish Chain or something, but each person had their own colors, their own something in it. I have this picture still to this day, because I'd taken my camera too that even though they are made the same way, they are totally different quilts. I'm looking at a file cabinet sitting here. I could see fifty million of those, and they'd all look the same. But I could look at fifty million quilts of the same design and they'd all look different.

SS: So the value in these early quilts is in the uniqueness.

MB: Yes, the person puts themselves in it.

SS: And it's a connection to another person.

MB: It's the person living on in this world. That's my perception of it, obviously, but that's what I feel.

SS: What do you think is going to happen to your quilts?

MB: My kids are going to fight over them. [laughs.] No, I don't think so; I think they'll share but they'll go to my kids and my grandkids. I only have two and we always laugh that whatever happens they're going to fight over it. We always laugh about that.

SS: I daresay that you probably won't have very many undone quilts.

MB: No, but somebody'll come into a lot of fabric.

SS: You mentioned earlier that you thought you had fabric for a hundred quilts.

MB: Probably.

SS: How did you get all the fabric that you have?

MB: When I first started, I would see fabric and I would buy it and say, 'Oh, I'm going to use this.' Now I buy for the project I'm doing. Sometimes we go on field trips. By having the list, I can buy ahead.

SS: Oh, by having your list of people for whom you want to make quilts. So, when you make your list, do you have the design and colors already?

MB: The only thing if people have a specific color, I'll put the color on my list. I don't ask them unless they say, 'I have a design,' I don't ask them because I have to do something I feel like doing.

SS: So, suppose you have the list in your hand and you're on one of the field trips and you're in this gorgeous fabric store and does something speak to you? How do you pick the fabrics for a person?

MB: Well, the Sister's quilt, I was going for pinks. I wanted to find the fabric that's the cross and the border. I wanted something that didn't have a bold pattern in it, so that it would look almost solid. Then everything else, once I found that then I could match everything to that. It had to be lighter colors.

SS: And is it all pink? The whole quilt?

MB: Well, it's pink and like there's an off-white with little flowers in it. There's a purple and everybody laughs. If there can be a purple in it, there will be. I couldn't find a really dark pink anywhere so I just--I have a purple about this color purple--

SS: A pretty dark purple.

MB: The pink that I'm using is similar to this but this is a purplish pink but that is a real true pink. That's what I'd call that a medium. That's the central color--

SS: You had said before purple is your color. How did you associate with the color purple?

MB: My mother would never let me wear it when I was younger. She said only prostitutes wore it. So, when I got older, I realized that my mother didn't know what she was talking about. When this book came out, "When I Grow Old, I Shall Wear Purple and Learn How to Spit," that's my favorite book.

SS: So does every quilt you make have purple in it?

MB: No, in fact last year when I made the six baby quilts, I also made a queen-sized quilt for my niece. She wanted green and yellow. And it was green and yellow.

SS: But obviously the one for yourself has a little purple in it.

MB: Well, you know, everybody has their own colors. Like my daughter-in-law liked dark red and navy. She got that. She helped pick out her own fabrics.

SS: Does that happen very often, that the intended user will pick out their own fabric? How were you with that process? How did that work?

MB: Well, she understood that I had to approve that the fabrics would go together. I had to look at them. So, we went together. It wasn't she bought, and she gave it to me; we went out together and shopped for it. But I had to be able to see how they were going to go together.

SS: Was there a lot of negotiation on the color?

MB: I think there was only one fabric that I said I really didn't think it would go well. She was okay with that. I explained it to her. She is a very intellectual person; if you explain it to her, she's okay with things.

SS: Probably she has some good color sense like you.

MB: She doesn't sew or do things like this.

SS: Nothing artsy-crafty.

MB: She's in math, a math teacher. She works for a computer company and teaches math at night.

SS: One of the questions that intrigues me personally is if quilts have ever helped you through a tough time?

MB: I would say yes. If I'm not happy, I go up and quilt.

SS: Have you made a quilt specifically to get you through a tough time?

MB: No. But if I'm in my sewing room sewing, I'm happy. What it does for me is I can put everything aside; all my worries, or cares or anything and focus on sewing. It gives me relief, what I would call temporary relief maybe.

SS: Do you have a certain time that you quilt, or how do you make time to quilt and how much time do you spend when you get to quilting?

MB: I spend anywhere from eight to twenty-four hours a week quilting, sewing and quilting. You know, I'm retired, and I have the maids in once a month, so I just do minimal cleaning. I do the laundry once a week and I do the groceries. This makes me busy other than playing bridge and doing some other things and here today. But you know, some days I'll get up and start in the morning and some days I'll just get things done in the morning and sew all afternoon.

SS: So, I was going to ask if you have a specific time of day, but it doesn't sound like it.

MB: As much as I can get in. I have to feel like it. Now that I'm quilting, if my arms-- when you're quilting it on the machine, it gets sore, and I stop for a while and do something else. Read a book or something.

SS: Then maybe come back. So, kind of intermittent.

MB: A couple hours anyhow.

SS: But like a couple hours solid.

MB: Well, if I'm just sewing, piecing and sewing, I can go an eight-hour day. I'll stop for lunch, but I'll go an eight-hour day.

SS: That's impressive, that's a whole day of quilting.

MB: Oh, I've done that. But when I'm quilting, I can only go about two hours and my muscles in my shoulders start hurting when I'm putting it under there and you have to--

SS: What is the largest size quilt that you've quilted on your machine?

MB: On my machine, double. But then I just did stitch in the ditch. I didn't do any quilting per se.

SS: So, stitch in the ditch is--

MB: Just in the seams.

SS: So, you're not defining that as quilting, you said you just did stitch in the ditch and--

MB: Well, it's quilting, but it's not any design to it or anything. One that big is too hard to put this kind of design on it or anything.

SS: When you make some kind of design with the machine, what design or do you tend to make a particular design? Do you do curved flowers like this one or do you do--

MB: It depends on my mood. I don't think I've done two the same.

SS: So, have you done stipple quilting?

MB: I've tried that and I'm not comfortable with it, stippling.

SS: Why?

MB: I can't get it to look right yet. I can practice and practice but then I said, 'Oh I could be quilting.' [laughs.] Time is my most valuable commodity.

[a third voice asks, 'So how are you on time?']

SS: I have about three minutes left, so I guess it's a good idea to say: is there anything that I didn't cover that you'd like to say?

MB: I just like to quilt, and this is what I spend my retirement doing, the rest of my life until I can't do it anymore. I'll go out quilting, probably, and I'll leave lots of fabric to somebody. [laughs.]

SS: Well, thank you Mary Bellis.

MB: You're welcome.

SS: This is Sue Steiner and today is April 20th and I have been interviewing Mary Bellis, number DE-018, at the Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories training workshop for Ladybugs [Quilt Guild, Newark, Delaware.].



“Mary Bellis,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 18, 2024,