Unis Southwell




Unis Southwell




Unis Engle Southwell


Debbie Ballard

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

National Quilting Association


East Lansing, Michigan


Francie Freese


Note: Michigan State University Museum also has a copy of this interview. The identification number there is 06.2002:62.60.

Debbie Ballard (DB): This is Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories at the Great Lakes Folk Festival in East Lansing, Michigan on August 10, 2002. My name is Debbie Ballard and I'm interviewing Unis Southwell from Sutton's Bay, Michigan. So, hello, Unis.

Unis Engle Southwell (US): Hello friend. I'm glad to be here.

DB: Well, I may be asking you questions that I might know the answers to, but we want everyone else to know. So, tell us how you got started quilting.

US: I started making my first quilt top when I was about twelve. It was a hand pieced Grandmother's Fan. I finished the top and it was very well done, but I didn't know how to quilt it. So, it sat for forty years unquilted until I taught myself in 1978 how to do the rocking stitch with the quilt in a frame. Then I finished it.

DB: Where did your frame come from?

US: I made my first frame after I had started volunteering every Tuesday at the City Rescue Mission in Muskegon, Michigan where we lived. I went there to help the Mother's Circle make tied quilts that they sold for $2,000 to help the Mission. Now, this was in the early 70s, but that was very cheap. They used new and used fabrics and they never washed anything, so the quilts were very cheaply made. All were tied with yarn and I'm sure never stood up for even one washing. But, in that group I learned how to put a quilt in a floor frame with four sticks resting on sawhorses. I tried improving their methods. Well, they were there for the fellowship, which is great to earn money for the Rescue Mission, but they were not ready to go on and be better quilters. That was not their goal. After nine years I left to join the hand quilters who still meet weekly at Christ Community Church in Spring Lake, Michigan.

DB: Why have you stayed with quilting through all these years?

US: It fulfills everything that I wanted for self-expression. I have made room size wool braided rugs. I have woven baskets. I have made pinecone wreaths. I've done all the little things for church bazaars, but when I finally learned how to do the quilting stitch that holds all the layers of a quilt together, that was when I knew I'd found my passion. I don't even want to take magazines that tell how to make little things for Christmas. I've done that. But I don't have lifetime enough left to quilt all I would like to do.

DB: Your quilting is beautiful. Your quilting stitch, your appliqué, everything.

US: The original feather quilting pattern in this exhibit quilt was possible because I took the class from Gwen Marston on Beaver Island, learning how to make my own feathers to fit the space, width and length that I want. I was ready to make more after that. So, I made this particular one. The border was the first part I quilted. In a big floor frame, I start with the outside and end in the middle. No one gives such directions. They always say to start in the middle and work out. My quilts are flat and never buckle. To use a large floor frame that can seat eight to ten quilters to work around its perimeter is often taught in church quilt groups. One learns the steps to proceed by watching it done.

DB: You've mentioned Beaver Island and Gwen Marston. How many years have you gone there for classes?

US: It was 1987 that I started. This year will be the sixteenth time I've attended.

DB: What keeps you going back?

US: The fellowship of the women and because Gwen pushes us to learn new things. She says if we pay her the class fee we can go down and sit on the beach and go swimming. We don't have to pay attention to what she has to say. But I go there to learn as well as play and so do the others. This is where I learned to use uneven borders, for instance, as a different design expression. They don't always have to be the same. It made me aware of ideas I could use on other projects. In other classes one may get a new pattern. Gwen emphasizes freedom of expression. One isn't pushed to do this creativity. I'm not a creative person, really, but since I've been going there, I dare to be a little more creative than I ever thought of being. For me this is wonderful.

DB: You've done so many quilts. You've entered many shows. What are some of the shows that your quilts have been in? Can you tell me?

US: The one that I'm showing here is really the best so far.

DB: And what's the name of this?

US: This is "Tulip Wreath." It was in several quilt shows. Holland, Michigan Tulip Festival Quilt Show, Best of Show, 1991. Benzonia, Michigan Threads of Love Quilt Show, Viewer's Choice, 1991. Knoxville, Tennessee 12th Annual Smoky Mountain Quilt Show, 1992, first in appliquéd bed quilts and Pride of Workmanship Award. Bowling Green, Ohio, 23rd Annual N.Q.A. [National Quilting Association, Inc.] Quilt Show, Honorable Mention, 1992. Paducah, Kentucky, American Quilter's Society Quilt Show, 1993. It's a Fons and Porter design which I developed and changed. The quilting patterns, the size of the tulips, all changed to suit me. I made the corners different because I couldn't interpret the directions given. It was accepted at Paducah in the 1993 show. It didn't win any ribbons, but everybody said just to be accepted is an honor. I haven't entered another one at Paducah because that's really the most exciting one I've made so far.

DB: Now, what do you call this one sitting on the table?

US: I call it "Red Pagodas" because the design, cut from folded paper looked to me like Chinese pagodas. I went to the dictionary and found that a pagoda has five or seven tiers. I counted mine here and I had five so my name choice fit. When I started this feather design around the outside border, the design I planned for the center area didn't go with it. I was studying this all the time I was quilting the border, thinking what I would do. So that's why all of these were designed in the inner section after the border was finished so it would complement the whole. This was all possible for me because I started going to Beaver Island. That's where I learned how to do it, under Gwen's direction.

DB: It's beautiful.

US: Now this quilt "Red Pagodas" doesn't have anything to do with "Tulip Wreath." We were supposed to bring one and talk about one. So, we're switching back and forth.

DB: Right. That's fine.

US: This quilt is hand appliquéd as is the other one. When Joe Cunningham, also teaching on Beaver Island, showed me how to do the blind stitch it absolutely changed my approach because I was doing the appliqué stitch and every stitch showed. He showed me how to hide my stitches using a blind stitch. From then on I loved to do hand appliqué. When I went back the next year, I thanked him and said how wonderful the results were. He said, 'That's nothing. I got that out of Michael James' book.' I had had that book since I started quilting seriously and forgot I'd read it. I went back and looked at my copy. Yes. That's where he got it.

DB: Well, you must have been ready for it when Joe showed you.

US: Yes. I wanted to know. It's so easy. There's nothing to it. Then you, Deb, made me know that this is the direction to go.

DB: Unis, when you purchase fabrics, do you purchase fabrics for a specific quilt or do you just buy fabrics.

US: Both. For the "Tulip Wreath" quilt I purchased those fabrics especially for that. Twelve yards for the back and the background of the top. The "Red Pagodas" I started on Beaver Island and had only enough fabric for those four 29" squares I had brought for class, not knowing what I would make. Then I wanted to enlarge the results. I went back to find more fabric but couldn't. This looks like it matches the center, but if you look closely, this white on white in the sashing and borders is not the same. It's the same pattern, but a little bit larger. No one would ever know unless I told them.

DB: What is your stash like at home?

US: It's a hodgepodge. Some people say they could make a quilt with anything they have because their selections all go in the same color family. All mine are just different. I get what I like as I see it.

DB: When you buy fabric, how much do buy at a time if it's just buying?

US: If I'm in a quilt shop and I want a souvenir, I get some fat quarters. If they have fire for, whatever, I have to go home with a stack. Sometimes it's years before I use them.

DB: What would be your favorite color? We've got two quilts here with red.

US: My favorite colors have always been red and yellow. I'm leaning more and more to those colors, but my quilts have every color I them. I don't want to be known for a certain style. I don't want to be known for a certain style. I don't want to have somebody look at them and say, 'Oh, that's a Unis Southwell quilt.' So, everything I do is different for the last. I often make them up. I cut my own designs. I draft my own patterns and the next one is nothing like what I made before.

DB: What would be your favorite style of quilt?

US: Since I learned to blind hem appliqué, that is my favorite. However, I don't really like to do the tiny, layered pieces of the Baltimore Brides. I prefer designs with larger pieces. That interests me, but I don't enjoy doing all those layers of flowers in a basket. So, we're all limited by the interest one has in certain methods which is perfectly all right.

DB: Yes. We all can't be the same. When you quilt are you the only one who quilts your quilt tops?

US: Oh, absolutely. When I go out and teach a group to use one of the floor frames and everybody quilts around it, one can always find my stitches. Once I hit my stride of how many stitches I make per inch. I have tried to make them bigger if I'm not thinking about every single stitch. I go right back to the routine that I've learned.

DB: How many stitches to an inch do you quilt?

US: There are eight to ten in the "Tulip Wreath," but my signature work in a quilt is that I always quilt in the ditch. If you've ever added that quilting, it's harder. So sometimes there are even as few as five or six to the inch. It's very much harder to make stitches small when one is up against that heavy seam.

DB: And you're counting the stitches on the top when you count them?

US: Yes. I would love to have them be fourteen or twenty to the inch. I've never watched anyone quilt who makes them that small. I don't know how they would hold the needle or fabric to get such results. A consistent size stitch front and back is what I strive to achieve.

DB: This is beautiful. Do you prefer quilting by yourself on your own quilts?

US: Alone. Oh, absolutely!

DB: What makes you go to a group to quilt?

US: To teach, when asked, or for fellowship. I waited so many years to try to find someone to show me how to quilt in the early 70s. People would say, 'Oh, my grandmother used to quilt, but she's gone.' Or 'My aunt used to, but she's in a nursing home.' There wasn't anyone who could teach me. Fortunately, when I started to teach myself, somehow or other I just started to rock the needle and it was in the right direction. I didn't have to relearn anything. It's amazing to me the people who cannot rock the needle to quilt and they quilt in only one direction.

DB: Who was your first teacher? Your first quilting teacher?

US: The Gutcheons from New York. At the Union on the MSU [Michigan State University.] campus in 1979 they held Friday and Saturday quilt classes and thirty had signed up on a waiting list. The Gutcheons were persuaded to stay through Sunday. Those thirty extra women can in for that day. The classes had been for Beth Gutcheon, but on Sunday Jeff was in on the teaching too. I had never taken art classes on color. I knew what they were talking about, but I couldn't do their exercises. They had us lay out diagonal lines of fabric triangles they had brought, a whole bushel, we were to pick our color choice and lay them out in diagonal lines across a 9" by 12" space. Then we had to go diagonally the other way and pick up one row. By adding the predominant color to this row, what color would be left? Some of the women did it in ten minutes. I had no idea how to do this. It's still a hard part for me. I now try to do this shadowing or creating transparency, but it's still difficult for me.

DB: Well, isn't it something that you should start your first class here at the university and here you are?

US: Yes. I remember how tired I was at the end of that day. To make one's brain work hard under pressure is tiring. It's amazing. I've never been so tired in any class since, and I've taken many. But it was a wonderful experience. I was ready to learn more.

DB: Has your family supported you in your quilting?

US: Yes. But none of my four grandchildren have ever said, 'Oh grandma, I would like that quilt.' Why, I don't know, but I teach and give programs using my quilts. I think they feel as though I use the quilts for those functions, so they are not available.

DB: What about your husband? Has he supported you through the years?

US: Yes, absolutely. In fact, he's very proud of what I have done. When I started, he wouldn't pay to go into a quilt show. As I began earning ribbons, he wanted to go in to see how they hung my quilts. Finally, he was willing to pay to see the work of other quilters or what the competition was. It's been fun. A real education for him.

DB: Have you taken some trips with your quilts then?

US: We visited the exhibit of my work in Ellicott City, MD at the NQA national office and to their shows in Bowling Green, Ohio, Davenport, Iowa, and Charleston, West Virginia. I've entered quilts in the Smoky Mountain Quilt Show for about ten years, which we always attend. It went from being in Oak Ridge, Tennessee to the TVA Towers in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee. That's where the "Tulip Wreath" won ribbons, first in hand appliquéd bed quilt and pride of workmanship. There is a huge lobby in these towers. One walks through large double doors and the top winners are hung. Three across the facing wall. To walk through those doors and see one's quilt hung makes one want to make another quilt and enter another show.

DB: Unis. What do you do with your ribbons?

US: I used to keep them in a trunk out of sight. When they began accumulating, I decided to hang them in my studio, which is one half of our basement. It's fifteen feet wide by forty-five feet long, a carpeted room with shelving and cupboards. I put up a clothesline and have them all hung there according to the first through the last. I found I had to write on the back of each ribbon because nobody else records the date of each show. Fortunately, I rescued them early enough so that I got the right dates and the right shows on them. I'm the only one who sees, but who cares whether I'm enjoying my memories of a moment of fame? Why not have them out where I can see and remember those shining moments?

DB: Do you ever buy antique quilts?

US: Never. I just make them. I haven't space enough to store my own.

DB: What do you do with yours?

US: I have a guest room with twin beds. The quilts are all piled flat on one bed. When someone comes to see them, I show one at a time and pile them on the other bed. They are covered with a sheet until the next showing when I reverse the process. This works because we have very little overnight company.

DB: How many quilts do you think you've made?

US: I have recorded about one hundred since I started. I tied the first quilts because this is how I learned at the Rescue Mission. Once I learned the quilting stitch, however, I've never tied another one, not even for decorative effect. That's not the way I want my quilts to look.

DB: Do you have all of these hundred quilts then?

US: No. I sold most of the tied ones and I've had several commissions. Some more successful than others. One went to Tokyo, Japan as a wedding gift for a friend of a local couple who commissioned me to make it. One small one is in Russia. I've had some commissioned pieces where I was too timid to talk about price ahead of time. For instance, two were made form the Sterns and Foster Mariner's Compass pattern. Each was hand pieced and hand quilted. The customer hesitated at my price. She had specifically wanted that pattern. I didn't know it until she had bought all the material for two. Then I couldn't back out. They were beautiful, but she thought I was charging too much. She said she just wanted a $350 quilt. I told her I could do that. So, in colors she had used, I had 4" blocks precut at the store and made two quilts in the Trip Around the World design. They were striking. I designed a quilting pattern that doesn't go through the corner seams of each block. They were quite special, and she accepted them. I still have the two Mariner's Compass quilt. I have since met a friend of hers who just shook her head and said, 'She could have afforded them.' They travel abroad and had intended them for their son who is a surgeon in the Navy. But we hadn't discussed price ahead of time and we should have. We should have.

DB: Well, we all learn. Sometimes the hard way.

US: That is why I'd rather not quilt for others. This "Tulip Wreath" quilt was begun as a raffle quilt of my own choosing. For nine years I made and donated a quilt for the Hospital Auxiliary in Northport, Michigan to raise funds for the hospital. I hand appliquéd all the tulips in this piece, put it in the frame, started the fancy quilting around the outside border and realized they didn't expect me to do that much fancy stuff. So, I took it out of the frame, made a more simple quilt for them, put the "Tulip Wreath" back in the frame and finished it. I have been glad I did, and the Auxiliary was happy with what I made for them. Over nine years, the hospital quilts made $36,000. I don't enjoy committee work. This was a wonderful way for me to contribute because I could stay home, pick the patterns, pick the fabrics, and make what pleased me.

DB: Well, I know you sold tickets on Beaver Island often.

US: Yes, a few but nobody won from the Island. Oh well. It was for a good cause and that's what raffles usually are for, a good cause.

DB: Right. Well, I want to look at some of the little quilts you brought us. Can you explain them?

US: I haven't the exact measurements with me, but these are small. For the last eight or ten years, using my floor frames, I have demonstrated quilting at the yearly gathering for the Council on Aging in Leelanau County. They feature many different crafts, all of possible interest to senior citizens. Several schools were used at first. Then, Sutton's Bay High School became the meeting place of choice. I try to have a different quilt to work on each year. This one, "Spring Beauty" was finished in October of 1999. It is a whole cloth or white on white quilt, all one piece with hand quilting designs. Many years ago, I got the central tulip pattern from Milly Splitstone of Fremont, Michigan when she taught a class at a Grand Haven, Michigan quilt show. The woven basket quilting pattern I used around the center medallion is a good illustration of a marking problem to which I have not found an answer even though I took a class from Ann Oliver of Alexandria, Virginia whose prize winning "Momma's Garden" used this same style. There wasn't a good time to ask her how she marked her quilt, so I still am looking for an answer. How does one start a basket weave quilting pattern, or a clamshell, on one side of a circle or other shape and meet on the other side with the pattern intact? I successfully worked a pattern around the circles in Burgoyne Surrounded, but it was pure luck. I had no plan to be sure of success. Even my copy of Leon's book on quilting does not address this problem.

DB: Mention it. That's beautiful.

US: "Spring Beauty" also has trapunto in the outside border and in the center. I had just learned to do that when I design "Red Pagodas." In a half hour miniclass at Grand Rapids, Michigan during the W.M.Q.G. quilt show, Bev Williams of Cadillac, Michigan was demonstrating the technique. It took minutes to describe. I was just ready to begin quilting this piece, so I purposely marked the areas I wanted to fill. With the quilting finished, I turned it over and with white fingering yarn threaded on a large needle, filled the spaces I had made. It took six weeks to finish. One surely needs to plan for the spaces to fill for once begun, all must be filled. But it is fun and it's a look that is rewarding to achieve.

DB: Oh yes. It's beautiful. Makes it look more elegant.

US: Yes. Bev's are just like that. This signature quilt has my name on it in free cut letters whose idea came from classes with Gwen Marston on Beaver Island. She says one doesn't need to make everything even, such as these letters that unevenly drift up the side. I've not found where this kind of puzzle has a name where a word goes vertically and t hen one goes horizontally and they cross using the same letter. There has to be a name for this.

DB: Right, like in the crossword puzzles.

US: Yes. That must be it. I took my first and last names which have a mutual U in them, utilized this and purposely put them against a black and white background of vague designs that sort of blurs what one sees. One must look to find my first name in there. It can't be easily seen at first. It's fun to fool the observer. "Signature" was a fine name to call it. This next one, "Michigan/Water Wonderland," at 15-inch square is the smallest quilt I've made. It was quilted in my smallest floor frame, which consists of shorter sticks in which to stretch the quilt I made the quilt as a special gift. I had been asked to demonstrate quilting on the Art Train, which was in Traverse City to celebrate its 20th year. Each day for two weeks they had a different local artist demonstrating. Afterward, we were approached with a suggestion. A group of about seventeen people from Tiblisi, Georgia in Russia [actually former U.S.S.R. as the Republic of Georgia is an independent country.] were visiting for two weeks in Traverse City, their sister city. Would we care to give them an example of our work? We wouldn't be paid, nor would we probably hear what happened to our offering. It would be up to each artist to decide. So, I designed this small piece with this hand appliquéd map of Michigan and a trillium, which was in bloom while they were here. It was finished at midnight on a Friday and given to them at noon the next day. Nobody else besides my husband saw it. This piece is the copy I made for my own collection. It was an exciting fun thing to do.

DB: It's an honor to do that.

US: Yes, I felt so. Even if I never heard about what happened to it.

DB: What about this yellow one you brought us?

US: It is a version of Sunbonnet Sue by Misty Bowman from a 1995 Quiltmaker magazine. These little girls sitting on the floor with their feet facing each other, I call "The Girls." I chose the background print with funny shoes all over it in different colors, deciding to make the girl's pinafores pick up the shoe colors. However, the background color of aqua or blue is so much the same value that the girls didn't show, and people began asking 'Is that an elephant trunk in there?' I really goofed not to have caught that. Gwen Marston visited me about then and offered good advice. As she said, I did learn something, and everyone misses their goal at times. To help this problem along, I put crosshatching quilting in the background and used a yellow rayon embroidery floss in a straight stitch to outline the figures and make them stand out more.

DB: Oh, and they do.

US: Well, it does to an extent. But, for this project it is the back that gives me the most pleasure. All those little stitches making those wonderful designs. That's what I quilt for, all those wonderful stitches! I haven't put muslin or plain colors in the back of a quilt for a long time. I've used prints as others have lately. Well, prints just swallow the quilting stitches, making them hardly visible. I've decided it's time I changed back to plain colors if I want the stitches to show.

DB: That's beautiful.

US: Supposedly I made "The Girls" for a friend of mine whose daughter-in-law had wonder if I would make a crib quilt for her if she ever had a family. The family hasn't materialized, but this is the quilt I started. Now, I'd just as soon keep it for my own grandchildren.

DB: What ways do you think your quilts reflect your life?

US: Oh, precision. Making all the corners meet. But I go to Beaver Island where I am encouraged to free cut fabric and corners don't always meet. Designs can be a little corked and off-center. I learned when I work with precision, corners meet and everything is flat, I am most satisfied. But there is no reason for me to limit my creativity. It just frees me to, for instance, fold paper, cut my own patterns and do reverse appliqué, which I would not have done if left to my own preferences. Being creative involves risk, but precision can still be part of the process. That's the value of learning freer ways of expression.

DB: What do you hope happens to your quilts?

US: That there will be someone in this big world who will treasure them. Right now, there is nobody in my family that is prepared for them. An expressed interest in owning them has not been made though I have given two to my daughter-in-law who likes them. But forty or fifty quilts is a lot to store. My granddaughters, one a senior in college, the other two seniors in high school, and one boy aren't of an age to have their own homes yet. In another twenty years they will want Grandma's quits, but in the meantime, I hope they will go where they will be appreciated, be it with family, friends or possible a museum, though the latter is perhaps dreaming on my part.

DB: What do you think the importance of quilts has been to you personally and to other women?

US: Encouraging personal creativity and personal growth. This has been the most interesting thing for me. In my classes, I would meet with a group of women, strangers to each other, ten in a class lasting ten weeks. All strangers. The first meeting, very quiet. By the end they are all talking, laughing and telling how their children were born and what their husbands do they'd like to change. It happens every time. It is such fun; they don't want to end the classes. That's how the group started that has met for the last ten years in Omena, Michigan. Somebody asked me to teach a local group how to hand piece. Once they had their quilts done, they didn't want to quit. Thus, they became the Little Finger Quilters, meeting in the little finger of the Michigan mitten. We have not organization, no dues. About fifteen meet each week year-round. Sometimes it's a little thin when there's summer company or winter sends them south, but there is a fellowship that is important to all of them. For all of them, quilting has promoted personal growth and lifelong friendships. The most diverse people from the most diverse background are drawn to quilting as an artistic expression. Worldwide, others experience that same thing.

DB: Unis, it's about time to end our interview. What would you like me to know about you or about your quilting that we haven't touched on?

US: I limit my TV watching, but I watch Dr. Phil who helps people solve life problems. His advice to those who are bored in their lives is to get a passion. And if you haven't one, hunt 'til you find it. Anything that makes you eager to get up in the morning to pursue whatever it is that consumes your interest. That's what quilting has done for me. As a senior citizen, winding down the end of my years, this has been a marvelous time. My husband spends his days at our son's farm cutting grass and changing oil in the family cars, which he finds fun. I stay home and quilt. Cooking and cleaning are still necessary, but quilting is the glue that holds it all together and makes every day a pleasure. I can't imagine in these twilight years, anything that could be more fun than quilting for me. Lately, I'm donating two hours every Wednesday morning to our local fabric shop. If anyone comes in with a quilting problem, I am there to help them if I can. Most don't leave without buying thread or something and that's the whole idea, to help the store succeed. For me, I enjoy passing along any quilting tips I've learned. I'll show anybody anything they want to know, but they do have to ask. I don't critique their work without permission. It's a pleasure to see a student achieve.

DB: Well, thank you so much. It's been wonderful Unis. Thank you.

[tape ends.]


“Unis Southwell,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 15, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1832.