Frances Mort




Frances Mort




Frances Mort


Debbie Ballard

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


East Lansing, Michigan


Francie Freese


Note: Michigan State University Museum also has a copy of this interview. The identification number there is 2001:170.25.

Debbie Ballard (DB): I'm Debbie Ballard and I'm here at the [Quilters'.] S.O.S. [- Save Our Stories.] quilt project at the National Festival of Art and I'm here with Fran Mort who is a Lansing quilter and it is 1:15 p.m., August 12, 2001 and we're going to start our interview. Hello, Fran.

Fran Mort (FM): Hi.

DB: Thank you for coming.

FM: Well, it's nice to be here. I'm so glad we have a good day for it.

DB: Yes, beautiful, after the hot weather we've had.

FM: Oh my yes.

DB: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself, your background?

FM: Well, I'm self-taught but I learned about quilting working with the ladies during the Depression when we had the quilting bees in each other's homes and also in the churches, where they used all the scraps to work and make quilts for one another because people were very poor. And then it just escalated from that and through the years just become self-taught and just learn more and more. And eventually having my own quilt shop with just the finished product, not the supplies and stuff that that, you know, regular store, just the finished product. And I then began teaching and that was fun, really fun to do then because my family has always been of the opinion that don't let the art die, 'each one teach one and then it will continue on!'

DB: Gosh, that's a good philosophy. How long did you teach?

FM: Well, off and on I did the 50's, 70's, and 80's, and then after being the victim of a strong armed robbery, gave up my shop and I gave up teaching.

DB: Now where did you have your shop?

FM: In Grand Ledge. And in my home. I had two.

DB: Now does anyone in your family, do you have children that quilt?

FM: My mother, of course, and my older sister, she also quilts.

DB: What do you make quilts for? Do you have a purpose in making them?

FM: For friends and gifts and special occasions for instance, I do quilts for the Sparrow Lifetime Health Fair that we have each year at the MAC. We do that, and we do baby quilts. I do about 20 or more per year for the hospital kids, but we do that through our guild, the Capital City Quilt Guild and that's fun. But when our friend or someone, even an acquaintance that I know that's going to have a baby, I make a baby quilt--

DB: Oh how nice.

FM: As a gift.

DB: How nice. What are your favorite quilts to make?

FM: Log Cabin and Double Wedding Ring.

DB: Oh, good.

FM: But after this one, this may be my favorite.

DB: Oh now tell me about the quilt that you brought today.

FM: This is a Hopi Indian Basket quilt and you choose your own colors. You do have to buy a pattern. But this was my first class ever to take and I was so proud of myself. Here I was 67 years old before I ever had a quilt class. [DB laughs.] Taught by a man who was a retired attorney and also had a degree in art, and he taught the class. The center part was done with a nine degree wedge ruler. Then it said to appliqué onto a background. But I said, 'No, that's wasting all this fabric underneath. What are you going to do with it, cut it away just to waste fabric?' I said, 'No, you can do it without that.' He said, 'No you can't, it won't lay flat.' I said, 'I'll show you.' And I did!

DB: [laughs.] So you taught him too.

FM: Um hum, um hum.

DB: Oh it's a beautiful quilt.

FM: But I added the Sun God Kachina in the center because being a Hopi Indian Basket design, I thought it needed her or him. I don't know how it's--how it's called, but anyway, the Sun God Kachina in the middle that is so nice with the colors that goes with the quilt.

DB: It's a beautiful quilt. And then I see you've machine quilted it.

FM: No, that was professionally done.

DB: Okay.

FM: Now that it's acceptable to do, you know, machine quilting, I'm doing, having them done now rather than doing it by hand because I can turn out more that way.

DB: Right. Do you prefer hand or machine quilting, one over the other?

FM: I prefer hand quilting. It's so pretty and it's so traditional. And for my generation, you know, it's traditional to do the hand quilting. But with times changing, we've got to be more productive and do as many as you can.

DB: Right. Do you think one is more valuable than the other?

FM: Not anymore, it used to be, but not anymore.

DB: Okay. Well this is a beautiful quilt.

FM: Thank you.

DB: Just beautiful.

FM: Thank you.

DB: Do you have a quilt at home? Do you sleep under a quilt yourself?

FM: No, I'm too warm. It just doesn't work but I have some for my beds, I sure do.

DB: Okay. Now you mentioned you make baby quilts, do you, other than the baby quilts, do you find you make large quilts or wall hangings or small quilts?

FM: All of them. All of the above.

DB: All right. Which do prefer?

FM: All of them. [DB laughs.] All of them. It depends on where you're going to give it, if it's going to be for this organization or that, or if it's just going to raise money, then, for instance, I recently donated a quilt, a queen-size blue Log Cabin, to Sparrow Nurseline to raffle off in order to keep the Nurseline open.

DB: Okay. Do you, did they raffle the quilt off?

FM: Oh yes!

DB: And do you know how much money was acquired from--

FM: $1850.

DB: That's a good sum of money.

FM: We had hoped to raise a lot more because last year we raised over $8,000 for Habitat for Humanity on a quilt. It depends on how many tickets are sold.

DB: Right, right.

FM: Therefore that's where the money is.

DB: Okay. How many raffle quilts do you think you make a year or are involved with?

FM: Perhaps three--

DB: Okay, three--

FM: A year.

DB: A year.

DB: I'm having a hard time hearing you I think with the music.

FM: Yes, this music is getting more loud, I think.

DB: Yeah. [laughs.] Do you belong to a guild--

FM: Yes.

DB: Currently?

FM: Capitol City Quilt Guild.

DB: Is that the only group you belong to or do you belong to others?

FM: Well, we have some small groups that is an offshoot of the big one and we meet in each other's homes.

DB: And how often do you do that?

FM: Once a week. And also the other group is once a month, just like our guild meets once a month.

DB: Okay, so your bee is once a week? And you meet where?

FM: Foster Community Center.

DB: Oh, okay.

FM: And then our other small group, we call ourselves Creative Cut Ups. We meet once a month in each other's home.

DB: Oh nice, nice. How many women belong to each group?

FM: ell we have eight in that group because that's figure, they figured that that's all that each home can accommodate. We work on our own things. And one of our members recently built a new home and we made a nice table cover for her, which was 46 [inches.] by 56 [inches.].

DB: Wow.

FM: And that turned out really well.

DB: Good.

FM: It was a surprise to her; she didn't know we were making it.

DB: [laughs.] So you're kind of tricky too. [laughs.]

FM: You have to be when you're making something for someone else. You don't want them to know. This is going to a special teacher at Everett High School--

DB: Oh is it?

FM: As a gift in honor of my granddaughter.

DB: Oh my gosh! Is that one that your granddaughter had then through her high school years?

FM: Yes, she had four years there. She graduated two years ago and all she talked about those whole four years was this teacher. And we never knew if was a man teacher or lady teacher until her graduation open house and then he came. He was the only teacher that came. And we've just become great friends.

DB: Oh how nice.

FM: So much so that I've established a thousand dollar scholarship in her honor to one of his sociology students every year.

DB: Oh how nice, Fran.

FM: So I'm very proud of that. We're very proud of him. [DB laughs.] We wish he was teaching other teachers. He is so good.

DB: Good. Well I'm sure he'll be thrilled with this. When are you giving it to him?

FM: As soon as we're done with this, sometime this coming week. He'll get it.

DB: Good, good.

FM: Yes, I wanted to have it documented first because it's such a different quilt, a different design. You don't see them. It's not a traditional kind of a pattern that you would put together and I was so pleased that I was able to do it and the colors came out so well together.

DB: Now are you going to have an occasion to give him this or just surprise him?

FM: No, it'll be just a gift because he's bought a home now and so he's furnishing it and so it'll be a house, like a house warming present.

DB: Okay. Gosh that almost makes buying a house worth it. [laughs.]

FM: Oh yes, yes, yes.

DB: You said that down here on the list that you've had some quilts published. Do you want to tell me about that?

FM: When I first opened my quilt shop back in the 70s, the church newspaper and the local paper took a picture of me quilting and put it in a nice big article, and then in Grand Ledge--the building is called Ledge Craft Lane. Each month they feature an artist of the month and I was featured in their paper and in their write up of the artist of the month with my quilts.

DB: Oh, how nice. And have your quilts won prizes?

FM: Two have won prizes in Florida, not here.

DB: Oh, okay, okay. So what did they win? And what quilts were they?

FM: It was blue and white, Royal Star of Nevada, 114 by 124. It was huge, but it's on an antique bed in Florida and belongs to Carl and Betty Leiby. And that won a blue ribbon. And the other is a Log Cabin in red and white that won first place also in Florida but both were commissioned work and so, but they entered them, I didn't enter them.

DB: Oh how nice. That's even makes it more special--

FM: I think so.

DB: To know someone really appreciated it.

FM: Oh yes.

DB: Yeah, so. Do you have a collection of quilts?

FM: I used to, not anymore.

DB: What did you do with them?

FM: Well, mostly give them away.

DB: Now does your family, your children, all have quilts?

FM: They do. And the grandchildren do too.

DB: Okay. When, at what time do you give them to your children or grandchildren?

FM: Usually at Christmas or birthday and graduation. Oh, I got to tell you about the Ohio fair. My friend Betty is hand quilting one of my Around the World, Trip Around the World quilts and it's in one inch squares. And she said if she could, asked if she could enter it in the Ohio fair, which will be entered the last of this month. And so I'm anxious to see how that turns out. It won Best of Show, First Place, and money and that's all hand done.

DB: Oh, gosh.

FM: Pieced by hand and hand quilted.

DB: Oh, how beautiful. Now what colors did you use in that?

FM: Oh just all the colors in the world. Every little piece. But every circle around the quilt is one color of fabric, one in each, and it goes out. But with having one inch pieces, I mean it's, there's thousands--

DB: It's going to be heavy.

FM: Of pieces in there. No, it's not heavy.

DB: Isn't it?

FM: No. No, not at all. But it's just full size, it's not a not a big one like this.

DB: Well that's still a lot of pieces cut. [laughs.]

FM: It is.

DB: Has your quilting taken you outside your home? Do you go visiting other quilt shows?

FM: When I had my shop, I did a lot of buying and selling out of state and that took me out. And that also got me hurt. I became a victim of a strong-armed robbery--

DB: Oh what--

FM: Out of state.

DB: Happened?

FM: He took my purse, and he dragged me across a parking lot before the straps broke.

DB: Oh my word.

FM: And that was really awful.

DB: Oh yes, yeah.

FM: I didn't think I'd use my hand again because it was so bad. It got infected and I had to close the shop and so, but it healed and the good Lord takes care of us.

DB: Yes. What are the benefits you've received from your quilting?

FM: The best therapy in the world. I highly advertise it to anyone, men, women, children, whoever, to do, and take up quilting. It is the best. You are totally absorbed in it.

DB: And what about challenges?

FM: You can challenge yourself in every direction of the rainbow because of what we are able to get now in the way of fabrics, the color, patterns. We have people now that create their own patterns and it's just, and then combining patterns. It's just amazing.

DB: What draws you to quilting? Do you make up some of your own patterns?

FM: Yes, I do. But it's the peace of mind and you just want to get away from it all and this is it. And I also collect a lot of fabric.

DB: [laughs.] Oh. When do you quilt? Day, morning, evening?

FM: Mostly afternoon and evening.

DB: Okay. How many hours do you think you quilt a day?

FM: Oh you don't keep track. [DB laughs.] You don't keep track. No.

DB: Have you passed on the quilting to any of your grandchildren?

FM: My granddaughter.

DB: She's a quilter also?

FM: Well, not yet, but she's she started and I hope she's going to continue [inaudible.].

DB: Okay.

FM: But she's got college to do and she has to work full time so it'll come I hope.

DB: It'll come later, yeah. Have you ever participated in any quilt preservation?

FM: Yes, I used to do that for people when I had the shop, restoring old quilts.

DB: Oh, alright, so you were a beginner in that field.

FM: I sure was. And it was really neat because I have a lot of the old fabric to repair the old ones. Some of them are beyond repair. One of our prominent people here Lansing, the Neller family, had quite a collection of quilts but they were so worn on one side, you could not restore it. It was just totally gone both top, bottom and the middle. And so I suggested to the family that we cut it down and do table covers from the quilts. And they were delighted. So we could finish the part that was good and have them as tablecloths. And they were just elated that they could still be salvaged.

DB: Oh good, good. How do you advise people to care for quilts?

FM: Well we've had a new revival in that area. We used to think Woolite was the best for quilts. Now, we understand that Johnson's Baby Shampoo is the best. Dissolve it in warm water and then add cold water for a cold water wash, and wash your quilt on gentle cycle and dry it on gentle cycle if your washing machine is big enough. If not, go to a commercial one. But that commercial one has got to be low temperature. It must be, otherwise you can't do it.

DB: Do you still work in helping people preserve their quilts?

FM: No, not anymore.

DB: Okay.

FM: I just do my own to give away.

DB: All right. Now your bees that you belong with, do they also make quilts to give away?

FM: Yes, some of them do, uh huh.

DB: Do you work on quilts together?

FM: Sometimes.

DB: What would--you said Log Cabin and Double Wedding Ring are your favorites?

FM: Um hum.

DB: Do you have a favorite color or a favorite palette?

FM: I love reds and I love blues, but I think I will do more with this nine degree wedge ruler. That turned out so well. I think I want to do some more on that.

DB: Do you have someone in mind for the next one?

FM: No.

DB: Oh, let me give you my name. [both laugh.] We can do that, can't we? So anyway, what would you say your first experience in quilting, how old were you then? It was during the Depression?

FM: I was seven that fall and that summer I was under the quilt with the pushing the needle back up for the ladies when they were quilting.

DB: Oh, okay.

FM: And then once I got the hang of that then I was able to thread the needles for them at the end of the table and keep all the needles threaded for them because some of them couldn't see very well. That was how I got started.

DB: [laughs.] When did they allow you to quilt on it?

FM: Oh not until the next year.

DB: So you had a an apprenticeship there--

FM: Um hum.

DB: At your mother's knee.

FM: Oh yes. And the neighbor ladies were there, of course, as well because a lot of them all got together in the quilting bees back then.

DB: Okay. Let me see, do you have a quilting role model? Someone you really admire in the quilting world?

FM: Rose Kretsinger comes to mind. Do you know her?

DB: I know of her, yes.

FM: I met her--

DB: Oh you did?

FM: At the Dodge Mansion in Rochester back in, now I can't remember the year, but I met her. She was there with some of her quilts and her quilts, you know, are, she's famous for appliqué, and some of them were the size of your fingernail, the small fingernail, the pieces that she had in some of these quilts. It was breathtaking. All hand done; all hand quilted. Just, just perfect in every way.

DB: Was that in '83 when they had the big show?

FM: No, it was before that because I think she was gone by then.

DB: Yeah, I don't know.

FM: I think it would have been in the 60's.

DB: Yeah.

FM: Maybe early 70's, but I believe it was late 60's, that I was able to see her.

DB: What did you learn from her?

FM: Patience, patience, patience. You're not in it to make money, you were in it to please yourself. You don't have to please anybody else. It's yours. It's your artwork. And she said believe me, it is artwork that you're doing, you're creating. And she really did, she left such a legacy.

DB: She had some beautiful quilts.

FM: Oh, she did.

DB: Have you traveled maybe out to see her quilts in Kansas?

FM: No, no. I wish I could but--

DB: Okay. What has quilting done for you personally, Fran?

FM: It's kept me sane.

DB: Do you find you quilt more during maybe a hard time?

FM: No, I think I do more creating during the difficult times because see, you've got so many projects started and that's the downfall of the quilter. Did you know that? [DB laughs.] When you have so many projects going, which one you going to work on today? But you have got to be in the mood to work on that particular one. It's that crazy but it's also that easy.

DB: How many do you think you work on at one time?

FM: Oh well right now I've got three going but there's about ten more and the boxes on the shelves has started.

DB: [laughs.] Good. How do you decide which one to do?

FM: The mood. It gets you going. Or if someone, a friend is having a baby or whatever, or they're getting married, then the mood gets you, you know, you make something for a gift. Get in and do this one and finish one and do it.

DB: This quilt you're going to give away, what do you think this teacher's going to say?

FM: He will be speechless. Totally speechless, because he's just that kind of person. He is so humble that it's--just admire him so much. He is such a great teacher.

DB: That's wonderful. How will you present it to him?

FM: I think I'll just give it to him, just have him come over to my house.

DB: Okay. Um do you ever have a time in your life when you can't quilt?

FM: Oh yes. I, probably like a lot of quilters, have a lot of chronic pain, and so during those times you cannot concentrate well enough to do the job. So, then you just have to put it aside, but I keep it by my chair anyway, just in case you have some time to do it. Because sometimes, even though you are in pain, if you pick up something and do it, if you have a very comfortable chair, sometimes it helps you to deal with it. And therefore, again, I recommend it highly to anyone that has this problem because of the therapy that, it just makes you feel so much better knowing that you're doing something, you're not just sitting there rusting out, you're working.

DB: [laughs.] Did your husband and children, were they very supportive of you?

FM: No.

DB: No?

FM: No. My husband doesn't like what I do.

DB: Oh, he doesn't?

FM: No. And he makes no bones about it. [DB laughs.] But that's all right, he's not going to make me quit either.

DB: Right. Well, everyone's entitled to an opinion.

FM: You bet.

DB: Do you think your quilts reflect what's going on in your life?

FM: I think they do because my friends know me as a very generous, kind and loving person and that's the way I want to be remembered. And whether my husband and kids think that or not, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. It's the friends who are going to remember you also. And so, in a way I'm sure they do because of my giving them away and donating them for charities, and trying to give them to people who can raffle them off to raise money. But in all of that, you see, I get the biggest reward because I'm the one that's getting the therapy from working with them. And working with these gorgeous fabrics.

DB: Right. It's hard for some people to understand, isn't it?

FM: Um hum, um hum.

DB: Do you study the history of quilts?

FM: No.

DB: So that's not a part you're interested in--

FM: No.

DB: Right now?

FM: Not really. But I do love the history of them, and I have enough books to open a library--
Of course, with quilt books but not really because I've learned. I've lived so many years that you almost, you know, the history.

DB: Okay. Have you been to visit the MSU [Michigan State University.] Museum's collection?

FM: Oh, many times. Yes, yes.

DB: And how do you feel about that?

FM: Oh, I'm so glad they have them. Oh my, so proud of that. I have supported the program and helped them to get that Mary Schafer collection.

DB: Oh good. It's wonderful.

FM: So, did our guild. So did our guild.

DB: Yeah, you were.

FM: And our members in our guild helped.

DB: When you sit and quilt, are you watching TV or listening to the radio or what's your ritual when you're quilting?

FM: I'm just quilting. Sometimes I'll have some big band music playing on the tape recorder, but usually it's all quiet and it's just me and my world.

DB: Oh, all right, good. Do you just are sitting there then quilting and thinking of things then.

FM: Just you're just absorbed in what you're doing, totally.

DB: Wonderful.

FM: You block out all this other junk out there.

DB: [laughs.] Is there something you'd like me to ask you, or you'd like to share with people?

FM: Whatever uh you think would be nice.

DB: Can I ask a question?

FM: Sure.

DB: I was so intrigued by something you said earlier, I wanted to go back to it. You were talking about the machine stitching on the quilt and your preference for hand quilting but recognizing, I think, I'm going to try and get your words right, you said, 'Because the times are changing so, we need to be more productive.' And so, you have moved towards the machine stitching. I wondered if you would expand a little bit about that. I found--I found that very interesting.

FM: You can do more now that you can do them on the machine, especially our baby quilts. I can do a baby quilt in a day, sometimes two in one day, now that we can piece them and totally put them together by doing machine quilting at home. And if you'd done it by hand, you would be doing probably a week in order to do one. So, you can create more that way. Same way with these. Now we have some people in the guild that can do these on their own sewing machine at home. Now I can't do that on mine. I'm not that good at it. But I can do wall quilts and I can do twin size quilts, but not the big ones. But you can do so much more now that we can. That machine piecing is so accepted, and quilting, machine quilting is so accepted now whereas it didn't used to be. And you can just be more productive and create more.

DB: Do you feel a pressure to be more productive or do you desire more production?

FM: Both because see, I'm almost 72 years old and I've got all this fabric and I want to make it into quilts before I die. I don't want to leave it and have someone, have my friends go through it and sew it for me for the heart research program, which they will do. But if I've got some left. But I want to get it made up and give it so people can enjoy them.

DB: I see. So that's behind your sense of the feeling of production- being real productive.

FM: Um hum.

DB: I see.

FM: Does it make sense?

DB: It certainly does.

FM: It certainly does.

DB: Yeah, very much.

DB: What quilt haven't you made that you need to make?

FM: Stack-N-Whack ["Magic Stack-N-Whack" by Bethany Reynolds; American Quilter's Society, June 1998.].

DB: You want to Stack-N-Whack, huh?

FM: I haven't made that yet. I've collected the fabrics to do it, but I haven't done it yet so that's going to be next. And then it's going to be or a Dresden Plate miniature quilt out of feed sacks. Do you know what a feed sack is? Okay. I want to do one. That, that will probably be next, then the Stack and Whack. Do you know what Stack-N-Whack is?

DB: Yes, I do. That should be fun.

FM: It will be.

DB: And who will that quilt go to? Do you know yet or?

FM: Probably a friend.

DB: Where do you, are you buying material now or are you just trying--[FM laughs.] to use it up? Fran? Let's be honest! [laughs.] Oh, she's buying, I can see.

FM: Oh, do I buy. I buy it by the bolt.

DB: Well then you plan on living to be what? A hundred and fifty? [people in background laughing.]

FM: At least, at least.

DB: Because you need to use it all, right? No wonder you feel pressured! [both laugh.]

FM: When you find something you like, buy the whole bolt. [both laugh.] Don't fool around with it.

DB: Could I have that in writing [inaudible.] ? [laughs.] Oh, gosh.

FM: The shop owners love me.

DB: Oh, I bet, I bet.

FM: And I also do mail order, also by the bolt. And it's a real savings because many times the fabric is not reproduced again so you can't get it again, especially those Hoffman's [fabric company.]. Can we say that word? [DB laughs.]

Unidentified Person (UP): This isn't TV. [all laugh.]

FM: It is. There are so many gorgeous fabrics out there to work with.

DB: Do you have a favorite shop or a favorite and/or a favorite mail order place?

FM: Hancock's in Paducah is my favorite place to order and also Kona Bay [fabric company.] out of Hawaii.

DB: All right.

FM: They have a real nice selection. And their prices are better, of course, than locally, even with paying the shipping but I patronize all the shops locally. I even go to out of town also to buy.

DB: Oh, do you?

FM: Um hum. Grand Rapids is a good place to go. [DB laughs.] Portland. Eaton Rapids.

DB: Okay. What would be your favorite quilting tool? What couldn't you do without?

FM: Oh my, now it's the rotary cutter and that mat. It really does the job. We didn't have that before, not too many years ago. And it really cuts down time in cutting.

DB: Well, you sound like you're just on the cutting edge yourself.

FM: Always. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It's just--it's just the berries as they used to say.

DB: [laughs.] Gosh. What outside factors influence you when you're working?

FM: Nature and flowers. I like to do those. If I can see it and then reproduce it as an appliqué on a project, whether it be a little wall hanging or a little miniature you can do that.

DB: Do you keep a file of notes?

FM: That's too much work. [DB laughs.] Just, no, forget that bookkeeping stuff. Go ahead and do something. Finish this.

DB: So all right. So you find your inspiration then from nature, right?

FM: Well you see your friends' work too. You get, when you have show and tell at the guild. Oh my. You want, oh we want to make that one and that one and that one! [DB laughs.] You may never get it done but nevertheless the want is there to see that.

DB: What is your next quilt? Did I ask you what your next quilt is that you're going to be working on?

FM: It's going to be that miniature Dresden Plate done in feed sacks will be the next one.

DB: The next one.

FM: And then feed sack, then the Stack and Whack after that feed sack.

DB: And after that?

FM: After that I'll probably finish the Double Wedding Ring or the Going in Circles with Nine Patch, one or the other. They're both there waiting!

DB: [laughs.] Well good. Well, Fran, I thank you--

FM: Oh thank you, dearest.

DB: For talking to us.

FM: This has been fun.

DB: It's been a delight.

FM: Thank you. Thank you very much.

DB: I appreciate it.

FM: You're welcome.

DB: And we're going to end the interview now with Fran. And it is--


“Frances Mort,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 27, 2024,