Gayle Cain




Gayle Cain




Gayle Cain


Mary Worrall

Interview Date



East Lansing, Michigan


Francie Freese


Note: Michigan State University Museum also has a copy of this interview. The identification number there is 06.2002:63.59.

Mary Worrall (MW): You ready? It's August 11th, 2002, and we're at the Great Lakes Folk Festival doing Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories interviews. My name is Mary Worrall, and I am talking to Gayle Cain from Holt, Michigan. Thank you for coming today.

Gayle Cain (GC): Thank you for having me.

MW: Well, what I'd like to do first is to have you tell me about how you first became interested in quilts.

GC: I have always sewn, and I had a love for sewing from the time I was a child. And it was just a nice progression and I started quilting about 17 years ago.

MW: Did you grow up around quilts?

GC: No, I did not. I didn't have that luxury as so many have.

MW: Okay, since you didn't grow up around quilts, how did you begin to quilt yourself?

GC: My first encounter with quilting was Capital City Quilt Guild and I knew people used leftover fabrics to make quilts and I attended a couple of meetings, and I was welcomed with open arms and the bug caught a hold of me and I've been quilting ever since.

MW: What type of relationship has the guild meant to you?

GC: Well, the guild has been there for support for me as trials and illnesses and other things have come into my life over the last fifteen, sixteen years. They've been there to give me encouragement with my sewing, to teach me when things weren't going quite right to let me know that I could tear blocks apart and redo them. And also, for the warmth of friendship and hugs and the companionship was wonderful.

MW: Besides the guild, how else did you learn how to quilt?

GC: With books and watching television and taking classes with some of the experts and just trying to get as much knowledge as I could about quilting and the different methods of quilting. And part of this love came from teaching my mother-in-law at the same time. We learned together, took our first class with Betty Boynink in 1987, when the guild had their first quilt show here at Michigan State University. We were very noviced and we had a wonderful teacher in Betty, and she showed us how to draft a block and that was the very first block that I, that we ever made, and my mother-in-law lives in Spring Lake, and was an avid sewer and embroiderer and when her husband passed away, we needed a new hobby for both of us and so quilting just fit right in. And we had excuses to go to all of the stores and hide our stashes in the trunks of our cars so that nobody knew the value of what was going on.

MW: Well, since you just mentioned your stash that would be all of the fabric that you've collected, can you tell me some more about your stash, what your favorite types of fabric to collect are?

GC: I like them all. And I know that at different times in my life I've chosen darker colors, and it happened to be a darker part of my life. Brighter colors when I was happier, and things were going better. So it just now depends on what my mood is more than anything else and I always have a quilt in my hand.

MW: Okay, so it sounds like quilting is really something that's helped you through the ups and downs?

GC: It certainly has.

MW: How many hours a week do you usually spend on your quilts?

GC: Oh, upwards of 40 or more. One of the instructors I had on learning how to quilt said you need to quilt twenty minutes a day in order to become proficient at hand quilting and I thought oh, she's got to be kidding me. Who's got that kind of time? But to work it went and every break and every lunch, I sat and quilted. And, you know, they were right. Twenty minutes a day makes a difference on the quilt stitches.

MW: So, it sounds like you're a pretty disciplined quilter?

GC: I love the tradition of hand piecing and sewing the quilts together by hand and the hand quilting.

MW: Do you usually have more than one quilt that you're working on at a time?

GC: About thirty.

MW: [laughs.] You sound like the typical quilter. Why don't you tell me about some of the things you're working on right now?

GC: Well, I teach a class and so I've had to get ahead of my students and I'm hand quilting our first sixteen blocks that we put together, and I taught them how to draft blocks, how to piece by hand or machine and get it together, and I'm now hand quilting that. And then I started a quilt about sixteen, fifteen, sixteen years ago that was a Dresden Plate and I finally have that top together, and that was done all by hand and that's king-size. And then I have a Stack and Whack that I partially taught my class at church and had an instructor come in, Ann McCort, to give us a hand initially because I didn't know how to get the girls started. So that is the top of that is done. And then from way back when I have an Amish wall quilt that's not done. And I have quilts that were tops that were given to me that I haven't quilted, and so the list just goes on and on and on. They're all in fabric bags with all the threads and the patterns, ready to go, so anytime I need a project and I'm tired of one, I can just grab a bag and go.

MW: Great.

GC: And they travel all over the world with me.

MW: Oh, so where have you traveled that you've brought your quilts?

GC: To Mexico. I went to the Yucatan Peninsula in the spring. I went to the Ukraine and spent two weeks there, so it's hard now to get scissors and threads and needles and quilting on planes but boy if you really work at it you can do it.

MW: That's what I've heard from some other quilters that they have some tricks now--

GC: Yeah.

MW: For taking their--

GC: Right.

MW: Sewing with them. You've talked about your teaching. How long have you been teaching?

GC: A couple of years and I do it at church and it's totally volunteer on my part and so there's no cost to the students that quilt with me other than the cost of their supplies.

MW: Do you have a favorite class to teach or type of class to teach?

GC: I like to teach the traditional, the hand piecing and using templates. I like to appliqué, and I've made a lot of Sunbonnet Sue blocks and they get a life of their own and have names and travel and so I've given a lot of those away.

MW: When you decide what subject to teach in your class, do you usually choose the pattern, or do you let your students decide?

GC: Originally, I chose all of the blocks to give them challenges from the very easy to the more difficult, using lots of pieces so that they had to deal with biases and straight of grain so that they were taught that as well. But after the first year it's been up to the students. I really think that if you give students a choice of what they want to make, they will be successful. If you force them to make something they don't like at all, they will be discouraged and may or may not finish the project.

MW: Um hum. What is your favorite part of quilting?

GC: I like it all.

MW: You like it all?

GC: Yes, I do.

MW: Is there any part of it that you don't care for as much?

GC: Oh, I just wish it was faster to get things cut out and planned so that you can get started faster on the on the quilting.

MW: You've talked about how you really like to do traditional methods. When you do traditional patterns, do you use some of the modern supplies, like a rotary cutter?

GC: Yes, I use a rotary cutter and mat and depending on the quilt, it depends on how much rotary cutting I do and how much is done by hand. I really like to have my pieces marked with a sewing line and then instead of cutting them at a quarter of an inch larger and then using the machine as a guide. I really like to have a pencil line for the stitching so that they square up.

MW: Do you have a favorite quilting tool or quilting notion?

GC: Oh, a favorite. I really like my sewing machine probably the best. I bought a new one and it's got all the computerized stuff, but it has a quarter inch foot, and a walking foot, and I think between those that has really improved my quilting.

MW: You had talked about your stash a little bit earlier and you said you like all the fabrics, but if you, is there a favorite color or something that you've, a color that you find you use more than anything else in your quilts, or a particular style of fabric that you find that you use more than any other?

GC: Well, I have a stash of ugly fabric and we use that for fun things. And I like pastels and bright colors and so I'm really liking some of the tie-dyed and some that have a overall pattern in them that just kind of blends away, that you really can't see a big difference in it. So that's probably my favorite. And I guess pinks and, pinks through the purples are probably what I lean to the most.

MW: Well, what I'd like to do next is to talk about the quilt you brought in today. Does it have a name?

GC: "Basket of Flowers." This was an original quilt pattern that was done in the early 1800s and it had a lot of these baskets on the quilt. And it had 30, 34 or 64 thousand triangles in it and it had multi-baskets, but Better Homes and Gardens decided to pull one block out and use it as a needlepoint. And I took that needlepoint pattern and enlarged it so that you could see where some of the colors were. Then from that I bought paper that was a one-inch grid and colored in all the spots to match the small 8-1/2 by 11 sheets of paper that we had colored. Then from that, with the colors in place, then started cutting fabric and drew a template and every square has got a pencil drawing on the back side before it was cut. I rotary cut the strips but still made the stitching line so that we knew that it was going to be square. And I told you that my mother-in-law and I started quilting together, so this was. I found the book at her house, and we started there. And not knowing exactly what we were doing. Part of this is her stash, part of it is my stash, and we started cutting it out but the only place big enough to lay this template of paper that had the whole basket on was on her bed. Needless to say, it doesn't stick to paper, it slides around. And the funny part is that when we went to bed that night, we had to pick all of the pieces off the paper and the next morning when we got up, lay the paper back out and put all the pieces back down. Well, that became a real chore, so I used a flannel sheet, gridded it out in one-inch squares and we bought every safety pin in Spring Lake, Grand Haven and Muskegon that was available. Little silver ones. And finally pinned all of the squares to that so that gave me a way to pull the pieces off, get them stitched and aligned so that they lined back up. And so, this took several years, and it went everywhere with me. Machine and I and this quilt would go to the lake and sit at a picnic table in my bathing suit sewing away and people would walk by and think 'What is she doing?' But however, we finally got it done. Some of it has been put together of the pieces by hand and that took so long that I was never going to get it done so decided that the best thing to do was to machine piece it the rest of the way. And now I don't know where the hand piecing has been done and the machine piecing has been done. So, once it was done it got layered and basted very tightly and I started hand quilting it. And this is the background is a cream on cream with a paint surface. Well, every three stitches broke a needle, so it was really slow going to get it hand quilted. There, basic basket around most of it has been hand quilted and then John Putnam started machine quilting and I finally threw up my hands and said this is never going to get quilted if I don't have it machine done. So, I gave up and gave in to the machine quilting and he's done a wonderful job.

MW: Do you have many of your quilts machine quilted?

GC: No. Maybe the second one that I had done. As far as machine quilting. And it was, I just gave in because I was breaking needles more so than, you know, every three stitches and you have a broken needle and you're taking a pliers to get it out of the quilt is just--

MW: Sounds frustrating.

GC: Really slow going.

MW: How do you use this quilt?

GC: It's on a bed. It's really the focal point in that particular bedroom.

MW: Is it on a bed that people sleep under it or is it in a room where people aren't really allowed to touch it?

GC: It's on my guest bed and yes, people sleep under it and people can touch it and I had a real nasty experience with some of the fabric running even though all of it had been prewashed. And there's a few spots yet where the color has cracked over which really detracts, you know, from the quilt. But you got to look to find 'em so I'm not going to worry about it too much. But even washing fabric does not assure you that when you wash it again it won't run.

MW: In general, when you make your quilts, do you make them for people to use or do you have some that are hands off?

GC: No, they're to be used and loved and washed and worn and toted.

MW: Do you know how many quilts you've made?

GC: No, I have not kept track and so many of them have been given away to people that I'm not sure that I know who has them all.

MW: So do you usually take pictures when you're done for the ones you give away or have any special process that you go through?

GC: Well, yes and no. Some of them we have pictures of and some of them we don't.

MW: Do you have anything else you'd like to tell me about this particular quilt?

GC: Well, there's over 8,000 one-inch squares.

MW: That's amazing. [laughs.] What an undertaking. Moving away from this quilt and onto some other types of quilts, what in general do you think makes a great quilt?

GC: I think they're all great quilts. Some people like the traditional, some like abstract, and I think whatever you like as an individual and your tastes change through the years and it's good to just reach out and use stretch and do things that you wouldn't necessarily do and you'll find that some things you like better than others but I don't know of a quilt that isn't loved and liked by someone.

MW: So, you think it's important for people to use quilts?

GC: Absolutely. Some of the quilting I, we've done in the different guilds that I've been in are given to the needy and Council Against Domestic Assault from the one quilt group that I'm with, which is Eaton Rapids Guild, has donated over a hundred and fifty quilts to the, to them and Capital City does that also and so some of my quilts are given to people we have no idea who they are, but it's fun making them and knowing that they're going out with love to someone.

MW: Do you have quilters that you admire?

GC: Oh yes, but gee whiz. My first teacher, Betty Boynink, I really enjoy her work. Millie Splitstone. Pepper Corey. Beth Donaldson. And the list goes on and on and on. Virginia Avery, Amie Simms, Ricky Tims, and I've had instruction from all of them over the years. And many more.

MW: After that list that you just gave me you really enjoy taking quilting classes it sounds like?

GC: Oh, I do. You can always learn something from those that have done it for years and are published and I guess part of what I've learned about quilting is my friends that I quilt with on a weekly basis, we have learned so much from each other and we're known as the Sunbonnet Sue's in Canoes, and we've quilted together for almost twelve years. And we teach each other. Someone's doing a new project, a new quilt, a new whatever, and so then everyone gets interested and we get hints along the way and we're there to help each other. So, it's not just the professionals that help us, it's our friends that we sit and quilt with.

MW: The name of your group had an interesting name. Can you tell me about that?

GC: Well, it started because Valerie Kruger and her husband canoed from um the Artic to Cape Horn, and when she came back, she had collected fabric and stopped at Capital City Quilt Guild and asked a group of women if they'd be interested in helping her make quilts with the fabric. And so, a group of about 20 of us started in. It took them two years to canoe the trip. It took us two and a half years to get three quilts done, so I don't know, that was kind of slow going. And we made what we call the "Two Continent Quilt" and a pictorial quilt and then we did one that was just of the Caribbean. And those quilts got published and taken to Houston to the International Festival and, of course, the Sunbonnet Sue's all went along because heaven forbid the experts should hang our quilts with us not seeing what they were doing with our quilts, you know. So, we had to go and make sure that they were hung properly and that they were getting enough oohs and aahs. And so, Valerie uses that as a teaching tool and from all indications, eventually those quilts will belong to the MSU [Michigan State University.] Museum.

MW: Great. Is there a quilter who you would like to study with who you have not had the chance to yet?

GC: I'm not sure just where that will lead me. We get a lot of teachers that come into the Lansing area that the guilds sponsor and so I don't know who's on the docket to come in, but I try to attend all of those as they come in here to the Lansing area.

MW: Is there a style of quilt or a technique that you haven't tried yet that you'd like to in the future?

GC: A Baltimore Album I think is probably one that I have not tried. I like appliqué but I'm not sure I want to venture out in a large quilt. So maybe I'll just do a small wall hanging of flowers and that's kind of in the back of my mind that maybe that will be something that I try later on.

MW: What about a Baltimore Album makes it one that you'd like to maybe try eventually?

GC: I like the colors and the way that it depicts what's going on in a particular era with the fabrics and what's important to the women of the time that they're making it, so it's one of those kinds of things that I would like to do.

MW: What do you think makes a quilt appropriate for a quilt that should be in a museum?

GC: Well, if we go back in history, some quilts were made with very primitive tools and they aren't done as maybe there's ravelings hanging out and some of it is tattered and I think all of these really teach us what's going on in the country and they really were truly artists dealing with the trials of their times and the few products that they had that was available to them in order to show their work. So, I guess I don't know of one that shouldn't be in a museum.

MW: Have you found that women today like to use quilts as a way to express themselves or issues that they're going through?

GC: Oh, definitely. If you go to quilt shows you will see quilts from the different wars, from the Civil War across the United States in covered wagons. The names were changed from the east coast to the west coast, but the blocks are the same and after our 9-11, September 11, there's a lot of quilts that have been made. It's a way of working through the pain and coming together and the fellowship, and just a way of getting some solace in your life and some peace.

MW: What can you tell me about quilts in the Lansing area or in Michigan? Do you think there is such a thing as regional quilts?

GC: Probably so. I think it depends on the strength of the instructors. We use a lot of quilts as utility quilts and therefore there are a lot of Log Cabins because of Michigan having the woods and the cabins that seems to be a block that's used a lot. Courthouse Steps is another one that is used a lot. And with the lakes around us, waves and flying geese and those kinds of things, it's the things you can see in nature that kind of go back into the quilts.

MW: We've talked a little bit about historical quilts. Do you collect old quilts?

GC: No but given a chance. [both laugh.] Some of them are very, very expensive and it's really difficult to find a good old one. Some of them are really tattered. I have a few blocks that are really old, but I don't have any quilts.

MW: But you've participated in quilt preservation and documentation?

GC: Yeah. Island City Quilt Guild in Eaton Rapids worked at Charlotte on Eaton County quilts for a day, and I was there to help documenting those quilts for the museum. That's the first time I became aware of how important it is to have labels on the quilts and documentation, which this one does not yet have but it's in the works.

MW: Do you usually try and label your quilts?

GC: They have a label and what really forces you to put labels on things is if you put them in shows and/or take them to the fair and have them judged that way. And it's kind of nice to have a blue ribbon or a red ribbon at a county fair and age is not a limit when you put your quilts in like that. A lot of people get to enjoy them.

MW: So, have you participated in fairs and shows?

GC: Iin Eaton and Ingham County both. And because of our guild being in and belonging to more than one guild, one year we did quilts in both county fairs.

MW: Well, I noticed that you're wearing a quilted vest today. Do you make much quilted clothing?

GC: I love to wear my quilts. This is a vest that I taught the class and it's called Broken Dishes and it made a good place to hang the pins that I exchange with other quilters from other areas. And I have a quilting friend that I met last year at the World Quilt Program that's going on again this year in downtown Lansing, [Michigan.] and she's from Australia, so we've exchanged pins and fabric over the year, so it's kind of nice to have a quilting buddy in another country.

MW: Can you tell me a little bit more about all of the pins?

GC: They're from different places. The two different times I went to the Houston International, went to Paducah. They're guild pins where we design, you know, the guild has a specific pin that represents them. Each guild does their own. Some are just from trading with other women from other guilds. And so, they're just kind of a fun collection.

MW: Well, we've talked a lot about your involvement with guilds. What, have you had any leadership roles in the guilds?

GC: I was president of Island City Piece Makers in Eaton Rapids for a year. In Capital City Quilt Guild, I was the librarian for a year, so you need to put into the guild some of your own time. It's like anything else, that if you don't volunteer to do something, there's always a few jobs you can do. If you don't, it doesn't get done.

MW: Okay. Well, I think we're coming to the end of the interview, but do you have any comments about quilts or quilting that you'd like to share? Or anything else that you think is important for us to discuss this afternoon?

GC: Well, I just know that it takes time to learn, and that people shouldn't be discouraged if they can't meet the expectations if they look at the experts that there's a lot of us that are just kind of plugging along and working towards a goal. And I always say on a fast horse you'll never see the mistakes.

MW: [laughs.] In general, do you find that a lot of quilters agree with that about the fast horse? That's such a great statement.

GC: Yeah, I think so. You know from a distance you'll never know that the points don't come together and that the stitches aren't, you know, 13 or 14 to the inch or whatever they're supposed to be. And if you like it and you need to be proud of your work at whatever stage you are. This quilt was not the first quilt I ever made and if you took a look at my very first quilt, you'd say oh boy, did she need lessons. They're really bad. [laughs.]

MW: Well, you just mentioned that you think quilters should be proud of their quilts. Do you find in general that quilters receive the credit that you think they should for their quilts?

GC: No, and it's these shows and when you get to share them with others that you get the oohs, and the ahs and other women say well I could never quilt or do that. And that's okay because we need the people that enjoy looking at them and the oohs and the ahs as much as anything to keep us going.

MW: Well, do you have anything else you'd like to add this afternoon?

GC: I don't think so.

MW: Well, I'd like to thank you for coming today and it was nice to speak with you.

GC: Well thanks so much for doing this. This is a real pleasure.

MW: Great. Thank you.


“Gayle Cain,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024,