Carolyn Beth Mazzella




Carolyn Beth Mazzella




Carolyn Beth Mazzella


Bernie Herman

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Lewes, Delaware


Elaine Johnson


Bernie Herman: (BH): Today is March the 3rd, 2003. I'm Bernie Herman with the Quilters' S.O.S. We're in Lewes, Delaware at the Ocean Waves guild meeting and I'm interviewing Carolyn Beth Mazzella. Beth, welcome and tell us about the quilt you've brought with you today.

(Carolyn) "Beth" Mazzella: BM: I'm one of those who could not curate my quilts, I brought three for you. But only two are mine. This is the very first quilt I ever made. It's a baby blocks kind of a pinwheel. And it has all of the charm of a primitive quilt in that it's not square, the blocks aren't exactly equal, and surprisingly I did get a ribbon on it. But it was hand quilted, and handmade and it was made in 1976. I had sewn for a long time, but this was the first one I ever did by myself. And the other one that I brought was one of the last pieces I made of which I'm prouder, maybe not prouder but in a different way. It technically is much better and speaks in a different way. So, those are the two pieces I brought and the other piece I brought is my mom's very first quilt. And one of two she made. She was not a quilter.

BH: Well, let's start with Baby Blocks because it's open. And this is the first quilt you made?

BM: Yes. This is the first quilt I made. I had been working and I took off six months between where I was working and starting a new job with my husband. I needed something to do, so I cut and pieced my first quilt. It was machine pieced out of scraps from all the scrap bags in my family and his family. His family were traders on the Navajo reservations, so we went over and raided the calico stash, which were the cloth goods they would sell to the Navajo people. And set it together and quilted it, probably two to the inch and had it for a couple of years. It's never been used by a baby, but it's been thrown on a lot of beds.

BH: How did you choose the pattern?

BM: I think I chose the pattern simply because I was intrigued by it. And I thought that it was straight lines, it would be easy. And I had a lot to learn about matching points. I chose the colors simply because they were bright. And some of it, living on Keams Canyon, Arizona had to do with what you had access to. We were seventy-seven miles from a town of any kind of size, like Holbrook, Arizona. And so you used what you had.

BH: Were there other quiltmakers?

BM: There were no quiltmakers in that area. My mother-in-law did not quilt. I'm not sure she could sew on a button. And it was not of value in her family. And I was about 1000 miles from my home and my family. So, I was the only one quilting down there.

BH: With all the choices of things that you could have done, why did you choose quilts, if there was no quilt making background?

BM: I think because I was always intrigued by it. My grandmother was the quilter in our family. And I had started sewing when I was very young and had learned to sew all the clothing and everything that you can do. And I had been writing and talking to Grammie and just got interested in quilting. I wanted to make sure that legacy stayed alive in our family. Mom's quilts she had made for particular reasons, because she felt she had to, not that she wanted to. So, I just picked it up. That's kind of how I learned to crochet. I picked it up because I didn't want that to get lost in the family.

BH: Did your grandmother ever see this quilt?

BM: Yes, she did. She figured out she could help me be a better quilter and was very gentle in pointing out things to improve.

BH: What did she say?

BM: She liked the colors. [laughter.] She thought the colors were good. And then we sat down and talked about it. Grammie was the kind of woman who could look at something someone was wearing and go home, cut out the pattern and sew it. And she had done that as a seamstress in the depression years. So, she sat down and talked about how to make things work and how to measure and how to make patterns go. And some of the technical aspects in a very kind way, as opposed to my mother could do it but in a very precise way.

BH: Did your mother comment on this?

BM: Yes. She thought it was bright. [laughter.] She's not much for quilting I made her go home, go through her quilts that she has a couple of months ago and I took pictures of them and started documenting them. And to her the quilt is the transmission of the family member. And the emotional tie and what the memories are in them, rather than pieces of themselves.

BH: What are quilts for you?

BM: I think it's really the link to a family and to that family legacy. And in a way they are a piece of art, because it was a way, I expressed myself. We were talking earlier about the national network that quilters' have and I think we think that's new, but it's not. Because it's always been that way, as fabric and as ideas travel via whatever conveyance there was – word of mouth, Kansas City star patterns, mailed back and forth. We've always been a national network; we just haven't thought ourselves that way.

BH: You entered this quilt in a show, your very first quilt. There must be a story behind that.

BM: Yes, there was. I thought that it was pretty good. I knew that some of the points didn't match, but I was living in Colorado at the time and took it to the County fair and walked in with it quite proudly and I'm sure the two little ladies sitting there had some of the same reactions about the points don't match and this and that and it's not exactly square. But they were very kind and very encouraging. We had a good time and we visited and when I came back to pick it up, because I work and I didn't get to the fair, I was so shocked to see a ribbon on it. Whether it was a ribbon of encouragement or whatever, it kept me going, rather than just saying, "you need to get better" it was like they recognized that I was going to get better.

BH: What kind of quilts did this one lead you to make as you started on the next one?

BM: I stayed pretty traditional. Nine patches, working on getting better with the precision. I tackled one Lone Star that will never see the light of day. It probably should probably be ripped apart and started over if the fabric's that good. But I stayed very traditional until about five years ago. The book Shadow Redwork with Alex Anderson [C&T; Publishing 2001.] really told me or freed me I guess to marry embroidery and quilting. Because I had embroidered since I was four. And so I began to put a lot more embroidery into my quilts and to try a lot more, within the traditional parameters but a lot more innovative or non-traditional things. And that's how I got to that quilt which is, I think, the piecing is better, but it marries the embroidery and the piecing.

BH: And this is the most recent quilt?

BM: Yes. This is the most recently finished piece. This is the table runner.

BH: And tell us a bit about this.

BM: This is a table runner that I call "Doxology" and it's a pattern of pieced maple leaves all done in browns and on a flowered background and technically some of the first things about it, I've never worked with flowered backgrounds, so that was a trial and I liked it. Somehow this leaf is one I like, and the colors are ones I've liked. I've ended up with about four or five pieces in the leaf pattern. It was the first time I really sat down and worked at putting embroidery into, not as an embellishment, but as part of the design of the quilt. So around the border is embroidered the doxology. I had it machine quilted so that I really could use it.

BH: Do you want to read the doxology for us?

BM: It's one that probably most of us know but its 'Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise Him all creatures here below. Praise Him above ye heavenly hosts. Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.'

BH: How do you use this quilt?

BM: I put it on my table. I actually put it out for Thanksgiving and in the fall. And I use it as kind of a center piece.

BH: Is your quilting moving in this direction increasingly, with embroidery in quilts that clearly are not for the bed?

BM: Yes, it really is and part of it is the embroidery. And I don't mind embroidering it and using it on a bed or washing it with embroidery. I move more in this direction because I get them done when they're not for the bed. It has to do with size. I have one quilt which I actually started in 1978 and it's still traveling with me; it's called "the moving quilt" because every time I pick it up and go to work on it I seem to move within a couple of months. And I may have made a big mistake because I had said I was going to finish it this year. But I think I'm here long enough that the curse may have been broken. It will be the last king size quilt I ever do. It's a very large Carolina Lily.

BH: You've moved about the United States a great deal?

BM: Yes.

BH: How has your experience in different places shaped your quilting?

BM: I think perhaps the biggest influence has been learning acceptance and tolerance of other people. And in learning to accept and tolerate other peoples and what they value I was able to accept and tolerate and learn about myself and things that I value. I spent a lot of time with Indian Health Service, so I have a collection of Native American quilts and recognizing that the quilt for them is not about "a quilt." And their quilting is not as intricate as ours, because it is the gift and the gift of spirit that they recognize. That helped me really begin to think about the legacy and touching of generations that quilts mean. Working on Navajo and the value they have for people and making their own decisions, let me think about that there is not a right or wrong but a value in what I want and what I don't want. And those kinds of things are intangibles that I think show in the quilts but don't show in the technical quilt making process of the quilt, because that's in the philosophy of the maker.

BH: So how are they reflected?

BM: I think they're reflected more in the marriage of things I enjoy and value and a growing ability to try things that are new and different yet not to try things because they're in vogue. I'll probably never be an "art quilter" in that term of the word, because I'm much more in the traditional vein and value that more than the artistic expression.

BH: What are the influences that shape your quilting in terms of other quiltmakers, in terms of other family? You mentioned this a little earlier and you did bring a quilt done by your mother, one of the two she made. Do you want to tell us a bit about that and what your influences may be?

BM: Sure. We sewed in our family for necessity, that's how we had clothes growing up. So sewing was not always a pleasurable activity. This quilt was probably made about 1935 – 1937. It's a quilt that has been well loved. And I'm trying to see if I can find a couple pieces of it to make a pillow top out of it. My mom lived in Hubbell, Nebraska and was in junior high or high school when this made. During the Depression, the Ladies Auxiliary for the American Legion was trying to raise money. So, they had program where they would call around to all their members--they had a party line and have a galloping tea and say, 'We're going to so and so's house come as you are,' and you were supposed to literally go as you were when you got the call and show up at some unsuspecting member's door and do whatever they had for you to do. Well, I don't think according to the story Mom tells that anybody ever really as they were when they got the call, nor that was anybody ever totally unsuspecting. Because you didn't have anyone cleaning the outhouse or whatever, you had something else for them to do. Well, when they came to my mom's house, my grandmother was piecing her pep club outfit and so one lady took that over and so she had to have something else for two other ladies to do. So, they took this quilt that Mom had started and pieced the quilt. And Mom had started it because she thought she ought to. Her grandmother was a quilter and had her cousin quilting and so mom thought she should start quilting. So, this quilt got pieced by those ladies and then put in the cedar chest for a number of years and quilted about ten years later after my mom had gotten married. And she used it constantly. It was bed coverings. It was mattress pads. It was picnics. It was wrap for moving and it looks like it.

BH: It's a wonderful object. Your mother passed this on to you?

BM: I kind of rescued it out of the bottom of a closet. The quilts that Mom is passing on are in the cedar chest. And we've made her write down in the Bible who gets what. And then I sat down with her last summer and went through to capture the stories of those quilts. But this one, I think in part because of its condition and in part because she didn't think very much of it was in a closet. I just kind of rescued it. The other one she made is in good condition and it's in the cedar chest and eventually will be one that I own.

BH: Do you have children?

BM: I do not. I have two stepchildren and they get quilts that can be used.

BH: Are they interested in quilting?

BM: No, they are not. Neither of them are interested in quilting and you don't give them an heirloom piece, you give them a machine pieced, machine quilted piece because it will go in the washer and be well-loved and well-used. Hopefully, we can skip one more generation and I have a granddaughter and turn her into a quilter.

BH: Excellent. Beyond family have there been other influences in your quilt making?

BM: Because of where I lived and where I worked it wasn't until probably the last ten years that I was able to join any guilds or anything so most of my work was done either through reading or talking to folks occasionally when you would find them. I would say probably television with the "Hearts and Hands" series on PBS years ago and Georgia Bonesteel were really helpful in saying, 'Yes, it's out there. Yes, it's still there. We can keep going,' and I think that for that reason I still orient a lot to reading material. Alex Anderson's work. Oh, can see her but her name escapes me. She always has the personal private measurements, the gray pageboy hairstyle, whatever it will come to me. And she's been around for a long time. Oh, Mary Ellen Hopkins, and she talks in a very personable way about 'this is your expression' again no right or wrong, it's your expression. I've looked a lot at some of Yvonne Porcella's and Ginny Beyer's works and everything and they're quilts, but they're not my kind of quilts. And so, I can value them for what they are, but I don't participate in that style.

BH: What are your kind of quilts?

BM: Again, I think the more traditional in terms of pattern, in terms of color, and probably those with a strong linkage to family, or memory, or history. We talked earlier today about the 911 quilts. I think that was an important statement for people to make, but it's not a statement I would have made. And I think in part it's because I didn't know a way to express that depth of emotion, in a tangible object, and yet I recognize there are people who can do that. These are more like memory joggers or emotional joggers.

BH: So, how does that work? How does it jog a memory?

BM: Well, if you look at a lot of these quilts, I can't but my mom can say, 'That was this dress and this was that dress,' and everything. I can look at a lot of the comforters that my grandmother made that were wool and were tied and go, 'That was my skirt and that was my sister's skirt and that was this and that was from that grade.' And I think when I sit, and quilt like with the "Doxology" I can think about where I was and what I was doing. Sometimes with the "Doxology" on it there's a depth of emotion there because of what that means in terms of family and church and faith. So, it's kind of a symbolic jogging.

BH: We have a couple of other people sitting in here on the interview. You both are quilters. Do you have a question?

Unidentified Female (UF): No, I think it's fascinating to sit and listen to someone else talking about their quilting.

Second Unidentified Female (SUF): There are a lot of things about her quilt that I would never think associating with my personal work. I think it's wonderful.

BH: What makes a great quilt great?

BM: I think there's two pieces of greatness and one has to be the technical side. It doesn't have to be perfect, but it does have to come to some standard of function. A quilt that doesn't work as a quilt, can't be a great quilt. But I think the other is the depth of emotion that people imbue in it. It doesn't have to be traditional. It doesn't have to be modern. It doesn't have to be art. The "Suicide Quilt" is a great quilt, not one I could do. But it's a great quilt because of the statement it makes and the emotion that it brings. And it's technically a masterpiece as well.

BH: Let me ask another question, you know that it's coming – what makes a great quilter?

BM: That's the hard one. I think that it's the personal investment. And it's not just the time and the skill. It's the commitment to past, present and future. The investment of self and what you value in that quilt. And always be willing to continue. We talk about being able to get better, it doesn't necessarily mean literally 'get better,' it may improve, or it may change, but it's to continue I think that's the legacy. And it's not only sewing it but passing it on and making sure that it's there for the next generation.

BH: Thinking along these lines, how do you see quilts in American society today?

BM: I think that if we think about it, the quilts in American society today are not a lot different from quilts historically. In they're the way we express a lot of what we feel and what we believe, both as individuals and society. Sometimes that's easier to think about that in the context of the 911 quilts. Again, that was a great statement of outrage, of fear, of anger, of hope, persistence, and continuation. The temperance quilts again a way that women, at a time they couldn't speak out, could organize and say things that believed. And so, I still think they [quilts.] are an expression that women use. We say we're liberated, and I've professionally had a career where I've done a lot of things. I wouldn't say I'm not a feminist and not liberated, but there are things we express in quilts that we don't express in public forums for particular reasons. And I think I consider quilts that way or ways we express what we value and what we believe.

BH: Why do you think quilts are particularly suited to that?

BM: Because I think it is the personal investment. A lot of times if it something you can do quickly you don't have the emotional investment, it's not valued. It's like I love my granddaughter, but I don't ever expect to see the quilt I gave her again. And I don't have the investment in that quilt. If it were still here, I wouldn't have brought it anyhow. It's that investment. Are there quilts for her in the future that I would bring, yes?

BH: In your conversation you allude to the relationship between quilts and their capacity to tell stories or provide a basis for narrating or communicating ideas, can you elaborate a bit on that?

BM: I think quilts are narratives and sometimes we don't know how to read their language. Save Our Stories is part of that learning how to read the code. Some of the stuff of the American Quilt Study Group is another way. And sometimes it's more than being able to read the fabric and know when it's made or figure out if it was bought or whatever. I think it's the emotional investment that gets lost when the history of the quilt is lost. And that narrative – if you look at this quilt my mom made the story it would tell by looking at the fabric without knowing anything else is clearly Depression Era, made at a time when it was utilitarian and it was used. And if you knew nothing else you knew that that was a woman's investment in her home and in her family. So, I think that's how quilts tell stories. But sometimes we can't read the code. We can't read the language.

BH: I've noticed that as we've talked you caress your mother's quilt. [laughter.] and we often think about quilts with our eyes – can you talk about touch?

BM: I can. I probably would have caressed which ever one was on top. But this one because it's gotten ragged allows me to pick with my fingers in a couple holes here and that's my nervous mechanism--to pick. But I do think that we touch and it's a way that we reconnect. Because women touched this quilt – my mother touched this quilt, my grandmother touched this quilt. And it's a way that we go back, through the touching of the quilts. We talk about the 'hand' of the quilt in terms of its drape and softness and how thick the batting is. But I think there's a hand in the caressing of it. It is part of that code. If this interview went on for two years, there would probably be a bald spot in this quilt if we didn't move it. And old quilts have a different hand I think, because they have been old and other women have touched them. This hand is stiffer, it's not there yet. But given time – fifty or a hundred years – might there be someone here rubbing this one? I think so, because it's that connection.

BH: You're the only quilt maker in your family at present. How does your family respond to this? It takes a lot of time?

BM: It's interesting, my grandmother is gone, and she was tickled that I had continued. My mom doesn't exactly understand and it's like 'that's good, the quilts will have a good home when I'm gone.' My sister does not sew period. I got the sewing gene, and she got the aerobics gene. And she has no understanding about it at all. But I think they're glad that some of it is continuing. It's my thing. This Christmas for the first time I learned to make pfeffernuesse [a German cookie, translates as 'peppernuts' filled with spices – cinnamon, cloves, anise, cardamom, nutmeg, etc. – sometimes topped with icing or powdered sugar.] simply because my mom wasn't making it anymore and if I wanted it, I was going to have to make it. And it was like everybody lined up to get peppernuts, well then, it's going to continue in the family. And I think they believe that it will continue in the family. But they hadn't better line up for the quilts any time soon. But I think there is a tolerance, and a recognition and even a value that quilting's not lost but will continue. It's a little different but it will continue.

BH: Is there something I haven't asked you? Is there a topic that we should get on to that somehow, we've missed?

BM: I always conclude my interviews with, 'If you had a magic wand what would you do?' So, this is your version of that then, right? I guess the thing I would hope that we could begin to do through these projects it would be that we begin to value traditional pieces and we begin to--I'm struggling for a word and it's not value, but somehow to recognize them as art as opposed to craft. Because they are art as much as an art quilt is. And when you go to shows--I just got back from Williamsburg and getting ready to go to Paducah--so many times the masterpiece quilts are recognized in technical workmanship pieces, whatever, but they are not seen as art. And when you go to the art you go to the art quilt. These are works of art in a different medium. And I would hope that we begin to look at that in the quilting world that it's all a medium. Picasso was as much an artist as Monet as Wiedemyre and Kodis. Just different medium, different way of expression.

BH: How would you explain the art of the quilt, then?

BM: I think that the art of the quilt is first based in its functionality. And that it does have a degree of craftsmanship, but it's also the use of the medium to express itself. And so if that is something like a Yvonne Porcella or the lady who is doing the transparent quilts now.

BH: Ellen Kochansky.

BM: Ellen Kochansky or the suicide quilts.

BH: That's Katherine Brainard.

BM: They are art, but so are those of the woman who makes the nine patch and puts her love and her heart into it and maybe quilts it in a ditch. It's still art. It's just a little different expression in a little different form.

BH: Well, I want to thank you very much for participating in the Quilters' S.O.S. This is Bernie Herman at Ocean Waves Guild meeting with Beth Mazzella. Thank you very much.

BM: Thank you, sir.



“Carolyn Beth Mazzella,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 19, 2024,