Michelle Mitchell




Michelle Mitchell




Michelle Mitchell


Jan Frank

Interview Date



East Lansing, Michigan


Francie Freese


Note: Michigan State University Museum also has a copy of this interview. The identification number there is 2002:63.57.

Jan Frank (JF): We’re getting ready to interview Michelle Mitchell and we’re here at the Great Lakes Folk Festival in East Lansing, Michigan, on August 10th, 2002. I am Jan Frank doing the interviewing for part of the Quilters Save Our Stories. So, we’re going to get started now and, Michelle, I would like you to give us a brief um background of where you grew up and what your basic life experiences are as you get into this quilting.

Michelle Mitchell (MM): Well, I was born in Belgium. We lived in Toronto, Canada, till 1963, so I’ve been in the United States since 1963. I got into quilting 1979. Sewing ever since junior high school, making clothes. Really got hooked on the sewing quite early in my life. And have sewed continuously since then. The quilting, I was fortunate enough to have a wonderful quilt teacher for my first teacher by the name of Candy DiMaggio, and I took my first class at Warren Parks and Rec, and she hooked I think everybody that she taught because she was so enthusiastic. So I was very fortunate to start off on the right foot and I’ve just kept going. And the wearable art is part of it.

JF: So, when you really first started quilting then was that bicentennial bubble--

MM: Yes.

JF: When quilting came back--

MM: Yes, yes,

JF: And classes were given?

MM: Yes.

JF: Was there any quilting in your family?

MM: No. No.

JF: Sewing?

MM: No. My mother, knitting and needlepoint, but no. In Belgium, quilting, especially back then, was totally unknown.

JF: Right. So when you first were learning quilting, it was in a class situation.

MM: Yes.

JF: Now did you continue to take classes--

MM: Yes, yes. I took it for years. And we called it the Friday morning everlasting quilt class because it’s still going. [laughs.]

JF: So, your quilting started out really as a group activity to some extent?

MM: Oh definitely.

JF: Tell me what the first quilt or so looked like. What type of quilting were you doing?

MM: Actually, the very first thing I did was a tote bag. That’s what she started us on. And then the next class was a sampler class, which is, you know, a really good thing because every week you’re making a different block. And then the one after that was a Log Cabin for my son’s Christmas. And now I’ve made like about 45.

JF: What type of fabrics were you using then?

MM: Oh definitely, you know, your little calico cottons. That’s all that was available.

JF: And were you hand quilting?

MM: Yeah, yeah. We all start the traditional way, don’t we? Yes, hand quilting and some hand piecing and hand appliqué. But now it’s all machine.

JF: Now do you also do machine quilting?

MM: Yes.

JF: And machine piecing?

MM: Yes, yes.

JF: And now?

MM: And machine appliqué.

JF: So now pretty much, I was thinking, well we’ll get into some of your quilts, but at this point your quilting has changed a lot then in terms of color too--

MM: Yeah, oh yeah, yeah.

JF: With the availability--

MM: Yeah.

JF: That we have.

MM: Yeah. I’m a lot more comfortable with a lot of color. When I started it was basically monochromatic. Browns, beiges. Now there isn’t a color I don’t like.

JF: How do you see; how do you see our growth as a quilter? You started off mainly with hand work and you’re basically at the other end now using the machine for everything. Did you change gradually or was it pretty abruptly as a result of a class or something?

MM: I’m sure it was gradually, you know, without even my really knowing it. Part of the growth is the industry, what’s available to us. The sewing machines that area available to us. The tools that are available to us. They weren’t there in 1979.

JF: The rotary cutter.

MM: Exactly, the rotary cutter. I still remember my first experience with the rotary cutter, yeah.

JF: What, now if you have no sewers or quilters in your family, what kind of family support do you get for this because you do, you have had another occupation other--

MM: Yes.

JF: Quilter, correct?

MM: Yes, yes. They’re enthused, you know, they like my work. They like to see it. They think it’s great.

JF: What kind of a workspace do you have?

MM: A bedroom, a third bedroom. A small bedroom, way too small. [both laugh.]

JF: Every quilter says that.

MM: Way too small! I’ve outgrown my workspace, you know, it leaches into other rooms and basements and it’s everywhere.

JF: When you talk about workspace, how do you work? Do you use a design wall? Are you using the computer? Just what do you put…use now in your work?

MM: I’m computer illiterate so I can’t say anything there, but yes, design walls. Yes, I do some sketching sometimes but usually I just gather my fabrics and my inspiration, quite often, comes from my fabrics.

JF: And you, another question that everyone always asks is how do these people that are so successful in quilting get that way? What are your work habits?

MM: A lot, a lot of time. [laughs.] A lot, a lot of time. You know I’m at it a lot. My husband thinks way too much. [laughs.]

JF: Do you set aside certain times of the day?

MM: Yes. Yes, afternoons.

JF: Afternoons you quilt?

MM: I try to have the afternoons for me. Morning time is chore time, afternoons is my time.

JF: Do you work--

MM: Not every day, mind you, but--

JF: Do you work on one project at a time--

MM: No.

JF: Or do you have several going?

MM: Lots. Lots. [laughs.] I think we all do that!

JF: Now, the secret, are you a finisher? Or do, how many are in your closet unfinished?

MM: Too many.

JF: Yeah, okay.

MM: But I do have to finish some things in order to get peace of mind. I have to finish some things; I can’t leave it all unfinished.

JF: Let’s turn to something I know you do a wonderful job with and that is wearable art.

MM: Yes.

JF: When did you start doing that, when you could really identify it, I guess as wearable art, and kind of tell us your progression in that area.

MM: Well, since I’ve made clothing since junior high school, to me it was a logical combination of the two, the quilting and the clothing. So, when I got the basics of my quilting down, probably around eighty, 1982 or so, is when I started thinking well, I can do this in garments also. And it kind of comes and goes. Every now and then the garments take precedence. Every now and then it’s the quilts that occupy my time. Right now, I’m quite heavily into the wearable art.

JF: Now do you exhibit your--

MM: Yes,

JF: Wearable art?

MM: Yes.

JF: Where have you exhibited it?

MM: Well, I enter competitions

JF: You do?

MM: Like in Paducah and Houston and more locally. Anyplace that I that I run across.

JF: And is your wearable art something you’re getting the most pleasure out of right now?

MM: Right now.

JF: Right now.

MM: That can change again because it has changed before but right now, yes. I, partly it’s because I get it done. It’s, you know, it’s a smaller project to tackle than a quilt and I get it done, which is, you know, a sense of accomplishment, a feeling of accomplishment.

JF: Uh huh. Do you, are you a member of a guild or a smaller sewing group--

MM: I belong to three guilds.

JF: To three guilds. Now do you do actual sewing in these guilds or--

MM: Oh yes.

JF: It more for classes or information?

MM: We sew. We have hands on. We have sit and stitches. Yeah, and lectures and it’s a lot of information comes from those guilds.

JF: Where do you get your inspiration for your work?

MM: Everywhere, really. I’m a person that likes to take workshops. I always feel that I learn something from every teacher, so a lot of my inspiration comes from something I’ve seen in my past. And it gets stored in my memory banks and comes back.

JF: So, it sounds like you you’re great working alone and then in groups too--

MM: Yeah.

JF: As a combination group too.

MM: Right, right.

JF: Now you also have had a number of quilts that have won awards and you do a lot of outstanding work. Let’s look at one of the smaller quilts here and you can tell us a little bit about this and maybe about the techniques and when you did it and--

MM: That is a round robin. Round robins are loads of fun. You begin with a central block. In my case, it was that feathered star block. And this was done with board members at Metro Detroit Quilt Guild. And we passed it at every board meeting we passed it. And I think there were six of us that participated in this. And, you know, it went from person to person. We didn’t see it the entire time it was being worked on and then at the end of the of the year, of the quilt year, when it comes back to us it’s such a nice surprise. And then I added another. I added that final last border around it and I machine quilted it. So round robins are a lot of fun.

JF: And they’ve been around a long time.

MM: They’ve been around a--

JF: And still going.

MM: Long time and you learn a lot because you work with things you normally wouldn’t and thank you.

JF: The quilt we have hanging here, let’s go to that and discuss that. How it how it comes in your work?

MM: Well that that was an exchange. That was a plaid Ohio Star block exchange amongst tri-county members. And we, I don’t know how many months we took for this, two, three months, and then the blocks came back to us, and I added about five or six of my own. I set it on point. I added the appliqué. I wanted to try a new technique for appliqué, so this was a good a good time to do that. And then I machine quilted it.

JF: What technique were you using in this quilt?

MM: Well, it’s a technique that I that I read about in Deborah Wagner’s “Traditional Quilts, Today’s Techniques,” and it’s using a product called Rinse Away. It’s a polyester. It looks like interfacing, and you use it for a template material instead of freezer paper. And then you wash it in the washing machine and it, that disappears, but it leaves a little bit of poof behind, you know, a little bit of stuffing behind and I wanted to try that technique.

JF: It sounds like when a new thing comes along, you’re ready to try it in a piece of clothing or quilting?

MM: Yeah, you get inspired.

JF: One of the things that you had mentioned in some of the paperwork you have is that you collect quilts?

MM: Yes, I have some quilts in my collections.

JF: Now are these old or contemporary?

MM: Old. Antique quilts, antique blocks, antique fabrics, antique linens, laces, doilies.

JF: And you keep that on hand for the next project?

MM: Yes, yes. I think there might be one or two little vintage pieces in this one.

JF: You have a lovely vest on--

MM: Thank you.

JF: With some nice pieces on it. What about all of the ephemera or the extra sewing things? The stuff of the--

MM: Yeah.

JF: World, do you collect that also?

MM: Well, yes, because your interests lead you in other directions too. It it’s just limited storage space that I’m I’ve reached very limited [laughs.] storage space.

JF: Only the storage space limits what you--

MM: And money! [both laugh.]

JF: Money! And a husband! [both laugh.]

JF: I think we all can identify with that. [laughs.] Now, have you ever ventured into the teaching realm?

MM: Yes, recently. Last year actually. By the suggestion of several people. They see something that I wear or make, and the question is do you teach. And I heard that enough to think well maybe I should teach. So yes, I teach at a at a quilt shop in Clinton Township called Quilter’s Corner. And I teach the wearable art.

JF: Okay. So right now, a lot of wearables have a lot of embellishing on them.

MM: Yes.

JF: In the year 2002, this is what we’re seeing a lot.

MM: Yes.

JF: So, you’re teaching with a lot of the, with the extra embellishing--

MM: Yeah, some of them--

JF: Techniques?

MM: Definitely are. And the classes I teach are, you know, are machine work. I don’t teach hand work. And jackets, vests, sweatshirts.

JF: Do you use commercial patterns usually?

MM: Usually, yes, yes. We’d start with a commercial pattern that I then do kind of my own thing with.

JF: Well, let’s look at your most recent quilt.

MM: Okay, that would be this one.

JF: I can hold it. That’s all right, they’re busy talking. I don’t know if I have that right, this right side up.

MM: I don’t really, I any of them, any of--

JF: This is the most recent quilt you have done.

MM: The most recent quilt that I have finished.

JF: It was hung in the Ann Arbor quilt show--

MM: Yes.

JF: A couple of weeks ago.

MM: Yes, it was.

JF: What is the title and tell us about the techniques.

MM: Well at this point I’m calling it by the title of the pattern maker, which is Karen Stone’s, and she called it “Untitled” and at this point I haven’t named it anything besides that. It is made from men’s ties and her piecing technique is kind of famous, well known, for her intricate points. And it’s all done on foundation piecing, so that’s how you get those nice points.

JF: Is that with paper or muslin?

MM: Her technique is with paper, but I modified it for this particular quilt because I used the tie fabrics which are all biases and very stretchy. And I made one block with the paper, and I tried to tear the paper away and when I did that, I noticed that the block distorted. And that worried me. So, what I ended up doing was drawing the pattern on very lightweight interfacing. And I sewed on that interfacing and that got left in there. That lightweight interfacing did not get torn out, so I had a square block when I was done.

JF: Was that a fusible interfacing?

MM: No.

JF: Was it a knit interfacing or woven or nonwoven?

MM: Woven. A woven.

JF: Yeah, woven.

MM: Lightweight. As light as I could find.

JF: Very lightweight.

MM: As light as I could find because I just wanted it there for stability. I didn’t want it to add weight.

JF: Well, I think working with ties is always--

JF: A challenge.

MM: A challenge. [both speak at the same time.] It was really my first time that I handled a larger project with it so. They’re great. They’re great to work with. They’re wonderful fabrics but you need to use some extra caution.

JF: We’re looking at the last quilt you made. Now what would you say, if someone asked you what will the next quilt look like?

MM: Oh boy.

JF: Do you know? Can you tell in which direction you’re going?

MM: Two. Two directions that I would like to go in. Floral, I’m very interested in floral, the motifs, you know, innovative floral type quilts. Jane Sassman, I took a workshop with her. She’s definitely an inspirational teacher. Something like that. And then going in another way I’m very interested in people. I like to get into my quilts in appliqué or in painting or in stenciling or in something like that. So those are the two directions that I hope to head towards.

JF: Of the contemporary quilters out there now, and teachers, who inspires you?

MM: Oh gosh, many. Jane Sassman comes to mind because it’s only a year since I’ve taken a workshop with her. Uh gosh, you know, Nancy Helpren, there there’s so many out there that I like a lot of, I like a lot of different techniques. I’m really very open minded.

JF: And you’ve really taken a lot of classes--

MM: Yes, yes.

JF: From a lot of good

MM: Constantly. Ann Arbor is great for that because that guild brings in wonderful national teachers. And I’m usually there taking the workshops, like you are. [laughs.] Like you are. [both laugh]

JF: I think so. Shows and contests. When we talked about your wearable art you mentioned that you know, had had that in shows and contests. What about your other quilts? Do you usually, are you quilting for a show? I mean do you usually have in mind that you’re going to have something in a contest or a show.

MM: Quilting, no. Wearables, yes. Quite often you have to use a specific product batting. So, my wearables I’m keeping a show in mind. Quilting, since it takes so long to finish it’s hard to plan for a show. When it gets done, then it gets into a show. [laughs.]

JF: Then you can sit back and say now where would this [inaudible.].

MM: Yeah, right.

JF: Do you usually try to show your products?

MM: Yes, even if it’s just locally like our local quilt shows, Metro or Tri-county or Ann Arbor. And they all have shows every other year so they get shown in that regard.

JF: Right. What’s your production schedule?

MM: Now what do you--

JF: How many do you make a year?

MM: Oh gosh. Quilts, not that many. Probably no more than one or two, maximum. Wearable art, more than that because since I teach you have to continue to make new class samples, so I don’t know, six garments or so a year.

JF: Now are you doing that also working full time--

MM: I don’t.

JF: At this point?

MM: I no longer work full time. The interior designing has been--I’m happily retired.

JF: So your work, you’re quilting full time,

MM: No.

JF: Almost.

MM: As much as I can.

JF: I’m trying to think of. One of the questions we often ask people is, you know, are you passing this on to another member of your family or is there anyone else in your family interested enough that you can trick into doing this?

MM: I hope so. I have a brand-new granddaughter. And if I have anything [laughs.] to do anything to say about it, I’m going to teach her. But I’m an only child so I don’t have any siblings to contribute this to. It’s the future generation. Maybe my daughter-in-law, at this point is not a sewer or quilter at all, but I think there’s an interest there. And I really do hope to grab that granddaughter.

JF: Oh, I’m sure. [both laugh.] We all do that. [both laugh.] What happens to the quilts that you make? Do they end up as gifts? Do you sell them or keep them pretty much?

MM: Quilts I haven’t sold. Wearables I have. Quilts I haven’t. A lot of them do end up as a gift but I’ve got a few left of my own. The ones that are really hard to part with are the ones that are done by hand. Those are really hard to part with because they take so long.

JF: Right.

MM: And then ones like this that that, they’re a memento of other people and I wouldn’t part with those either because they’re a memento. A souvenir.

JF: Where do you see yourself in ten years?

MM: Still doing this, no doubt about it. It a love that continues to grow. It hasn’t waned at all. It just keeps on growing.

JF: And you still have classes to take.

MM: And classes to take. There’s wonderful teachers out there and as long as I belong to the Ann Arbor Quilt Guild and keep getting exposed to these great teachers, there’ll be many more workshop to take.

JF: And you’ll be able to teach and share also.

MM: Yes. Yes. At QU, right?

JF: Yes. [laughs.] I neglected to ask one question back always, and that is about your stash. Every quilter is interested in what that stash looks like, how much is there, how old is some of it. Now you mentioned you had some old antique things but describe your stash.

MM: Well, [laughs.] it’s everywhere. It’s in any, you know, available storage place. My stash, it goes all the way back to the, you know, to those late 70s, early 80s, so some of the fabric is quite old. Nowadays I buy things that are unique. I’m definitely interested in silks, so I’m beginning to buy the silks. That’s relatively new for me. Wool. I’ve begun to work with wool so that that’s another thing to start collecting and add to my stash. So, kind of, quilter’s cottons are at a standstill for me because I have so many.

JF: Is the wool for wearables?

MM: Yes. It’s wonderful. It just needs a little bit more care in sewing because it moves more than cotton, but it’s wonderful.

JF: And has the dying bug hit you?

MM: Not really. I it’s one of those things that I feel I can’t do it all and the dying is something I leave for others. I buy it.

JF: I was going to say I do see the hand dye.

MM: Yeah, I buy it.

JF: What about, when we were talking about wearables, another question I neglected to ask you, and that was what type of batting do you usually use? Is it mainly if you’re doing it for a contest, it would be whatever batting that they--

MM: If I’m not doing it for a contest, I’ll quite often use just plain ordinary muslin, or flannel. Soft Touch by Fairfield is a wonderful bat. Thermore [a type of polyester batting.] is the one that you need to use quite often if you’re entering shows. But left to my own devices I want it to be as drapable as possible and the more batting you put into it, the less drape so flannel drapes real nice and muslin.

JF: Have you used silk?

MM: Yes.

JF: Batting?

MM: No, I bought it! [both laugh.] It’s in my stash! I will use it and I’m going to use wool batting too. That’s in my future too.

JF: Is there anything else that you would like to say that I might have missed that you feel would be important to tell us about your quilting?

MM: No, I can’t really think of anything right off the top. I think you’ve covered it quite well.

JF: Well, thank you, Michelle Mitchell, and this is an interview at the Great Lakes Folk Festival in East Lansing, Michigan.

MM: Thank you, Jan.


“Michelle Mitchell,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1834.