Ellen Levine




Ellen Levine




Ellen Levine


Alice Helms

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Sandra Anne Frazier


Asheville, NC


Alice Helms


Alice Helms (AH): My name is Alice Helms. Today is January 4, 2010. I'm conducting an interview with Ellen Levine for the Quilters' S.O.S.-Save our Stories project. We're at Ellen's home in Asheville, North Carolina and it is 4:30 p.m. Ellen, tell me about the quilt you chose for today.

Ellen Levine (EL): This is one of my earlier quilts--it's probably my third quilt--and I think it speaks to a lot of who I was then and what traits I've maintained in quilting over the years since I've started quilting. This quilt was done in 2002, May 2002 and I started quilting in January 2002.

AH: Why don't you describe it?

EL: It's a paper pieced quilt. I guess a lot of the pieces came from a single pattern. I took a class and the teacher was very parochial in her ability to be artistic and so she gave us some patterns to do and a lot of them are those but that wasn't enough for me so I incorporated paper piecing from other places. It's frogs because I'm a frog person. It's called "Meeting Friends at the Pond" and there's totems for all the people that were important in my life at the time.

AH: What are the totems?

EL: There's a moose for my daughter [Marci.], who's a moose kid. Her nickname's Moose. There's a rabbit for my granddaughter [Elizabeth.]who's into bunnies, or was into bunnies at the time. She's now into frogs. She was very young at the time. There's cats for my cat friends. There's butterflies for the butterfly people in my life. There's a hummingbird for my husband who thought they didn't have any feet at one point. Let's see what other totems are there. There's an owl for a friend who was into owls.

AH: So there are nine blocks?

EL: No there's really not, there's lots and lots of blocks because although it looks like nine blocks, it's like [EL points and counts.] one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. There's eight in the first row that looks like three.

AH: Oh, okay.

EL: There are lots of pieces put together to form blocks big enough to square off to put the quilt together. And I did it in rows. So there's not the same number of blocks in every row.

AH: Describe the fabrics.

EL: It's batiks, blue batiks for the border and the background in different shades. And then various other fabrics that incorporate the sense of a pond. There's water fabric for where the frogs are in the water and there's pebbles for where the birds are on pebbles. There are lots of leaves. The moose, for instance is hiding behind a leaf. The bunny's in grass so there's grass-type fabric. There's some bulrushes with birds sitting on them. So the fabrics really are very indicative of what they're supposed to depict. Also, there's paper piecing, but there's also folded paper piecing. Some of the pieces have lots of little tucks in them to form the flowers and the pieces. [Ellen stands up to point to the quilt.]For instance, these frogs are all pieced, they're puffy, and these flowers are all pieced to give them depth. And then there's some beads for eyes and a little bit of embellishment.

AH: What special meaning does this quilt have for you?

EL: Well as I said, it's one of my earliest quilts. When I started quilting I really didn't think that I would find quilters that would be friends. I had the same impression that many people have about quilters, little old ladies who are very parochial and very pedantic. Of course we all know that's not true at all. And so I decided that I would teach myself what I could and then learn from whomever but not really become friends with quilters. And I went into a shop right after I started. The first two quilts I made were pieced quilts and then I went into a shop and I saw this frog quilt hanging there and it was paper pieced and she said, the owner of the shop said, 'No you don't have to be an expert with paper piecing.' Well I knew nothing about paper piecing so I decided I would teach myself on a black and white quilt, just a very simple paper pieced piece, which I did, and then I went to this class and I think the class started in February, I think it went from February through March and I met someone [Cynthia Paul.]who's become one of my best friends and certainly my quilting mentor, in the class, who was also a frog person. So this quilt represents a lot of things, a lot of growth and the ability to be experimental in the very beginning of my quilting.

Ah: And where was this?

EL: Los Angeles. [California.]

AH: That's where you were living?

EL: Yes.

AH: How do you use this quilt?

EL: It's a wall hanging. It rotates into one or two places that we have the right size for it. It's not a very large quilt. It's only about sixty inches across or something. And it hangs on the wall. We've had it in several kitchens, the kitchen in Los Angeles and our kitchen here and then I replaced it with another quilt but I rotate it in and out. So we get to look at it and enjoy it. Also the kids will use it as a throw and it's been well washed in the time.

AH: And what are your plans for the quilt?

EL: When I no longer want it or am around to enjoy it, it'll go to my daughter or my granddaughter. Because of the totems and the specialness and the fact that Elizabeth is a frog person so she'll enjoy it.

AH: That's your granddaughter.

EL: My granddaughter.

AH: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking. I don't know if you want to say what age [laughs.] but at what point in your life did you start quilting?

EL: I started quilting in 2002 so I was already a grownup, very grown up. [both laugh.] Very mature. Well maybe not mature but very grown up. Supposedly. I was retired already. I was looking for something to do in my retirement and I'd been retired for a few years and hadn't yet found the thing that turned me on. I went to Road to California which is a fairly big quilt show outside of Los Angeles and fell in love. Just couldn't get over the quilts and I didn't know quilts. I was not someone who had been brought up with quilts at all. So I just fell in love with the art form and the variety of the art form and all the things you could do with the art form and came home with a pile of fabric and decided that's what I was going to do.

AH: So you went to the quilt show not ever having--

EL: I went with a friend. I went with a friend who said, 'Do you want to go?' and I said, 'Sure.' I didn't have anything to do so I said, 'Sure, I'll go with you.'

AH: At that point you had never made a quilt.

EL: I had never made a quilt.

AH: So that was the inspiration.

EL: That was it. I had made memory pillows that some might call quilts that had incorporated pictures and other things on to them in an appliqué kind of format but not three layers quilted together.

AH: So you were a sewer.

EL: I was a sewer. I had made clothing, garments and I had also made home dec [decorating.] stuff so I was a sewer. I had a fairly good machine, I was doing as I said the pillows and embroidery and stuff like that on the machine but I had never made a quilt.

AH: Did you start sewing at a young age?

EL: I grew up in a home where garment making was considered something that you did. My mother went to Pratt Institute of Design in New York so she was very accomplished. She was an accomplished designer and sewer. And my paternal grandfather and grandmother were both in the garment district in New York. My grandfather was a designer and had a business in New York and in Toronto. So I came by the garment making naturally. [pause for 6 seconds.]But no one in our family quilted. They did all the other hand items that you do, they did cross stitch and embroidery and needlepoint and knitting but there weren't any quilters.

AH: So what would you say was your first quilt memory, or impression?

EL: Probably Road to California. I'm sure there were quilts in my life before that but none that I said, 'Oh my god, what a quilt,' or 'Oh look at that,' or 'Look at that usage of fabrics.' When I thought quilts, I thought very traditional at that point, that was my thought about what a quilt was, a quilt was blocks together, very traditional and I'm not a traditional quilter. So although I've made traditional quilts because I think you need to do that to hone your skills and your art, I would never consider myself at this point a traditional quilter. I don't gravitate toward traditional quilting at all.

AH: You may have already answered this--you don't have any other quilters in your family, is that right?

EL: I do now. I have a granddaughter who quilts. Elizabeth. She's a quilter. She thinks she's quite proficient and I guess she is for someone who's ten. She likes to design quilts. She's also not traditional at all and her mother, my daughter, will do rag quilts and she loves to do design. She doesn't like the sewing part, but she loves to design a quilt. So, I guess now I have quilters in my family.

AH: How does quiltmaking impact your family?

EL: [laughs.] I guess the way any addiction impacts the addict's family. [laughs. ] I think that to be a quilter in the soul, it goes through every fiber of your being. I don't think that you can just be, at least I can't, although I'm a little compulsive, as many quilters are. I don't think I can just compartmentalize. I think the quilting goes through everything. It just permeates our whole life. When we travel, and we enjoy traveling, we'll go to fabric stores all over the world, wherever we are, we'll look at the textiles there. We'll bring some back if we can. When we travel we'll see if there are quilt shows or quilt shops or knitting shops. When we moved to Asheville, it was important that I had a quilt room. That was one of the things that we looked for in a house. The vast majority of my friends, my close circle that's been formed since I started quilting--of course I have friends from before--but my new friends, the vast majority of them are quilters and enjoy quilting so it's a language. I have a friend [Cynthia.]who says, as a matter of fact the friend that I met at the frog quilt class, says she never knows what to give to a civilian, because she's so used to buying things for quilters for their birthdays and she calls the rest of them civilians, and I guess I sort of have some of the same--although I don't think I'm unidimensional—I have lots of interests, but quilting certainly goes into some of the others.

AH: Have you ever used quilts to get through a difficult time?

EL: Yes, yes. I think we all do. When I quilt, I most frequently, or very frequently, don't have music on, I have nothing on. It becomes my meditation. I can sort of just get into it and think about whatever it is and just get absorbed into the quilt, so it's a wonderful escape for me. I find that when there's difficult times, I find myself very often going into my studio and just immersing myself.

AH: What do you find pleasing about quiltmaking?

EL: Everything from the tactile, you know I cannot go into a quilt store--and I think most quilters can't--without touching. You just have to touch everything, you have to feel it. So there's a tactile comfort in quilting. There's an aesthetic quality in quilting as you look at it and it starts to emerge and develop. You get to see all of the pieces coming together. And there's definitely a satisfaction in giving and sharing because a lot of my quilts go to others and I get to see the joy on their faces or know that if it's a utilitarian quilt for the community, for a community project, that someone's going to enjoy the warmth of it. There's something very fulfilling to me in being able to take a bunch of fabrics, cut them up and put them back into something. There's something very soothing in doing that. And very fulfilling.

AH: What aspects of quiltmaking do you not enjoy?

EL: I'm not big in quilting. The actual physical quilting of it. I hate the layering part. I hate it. If I could figure out how to not have to do the layering part, I'd enjoy the quilting part. But the actual getting the bottom nice and tight and then smoothing out the batting and then getting the top and lining it all up, [sigh.]that is not something I enjoy. I don't mind the actual sewing of the quilting part but it's that interim piece that I'll most often take my tops, especially bigger ones to somebody who has a longarm and let them work their magic on it.

AH: What do you think makes a great quilter?

EL: Passion. Passion about almost anything. I think to be a great quilter you have to be passionate about life, you have to want to express yourself in your art. I think that to be a great quilter, you can't feel limited, you can't be paralyzed with fear of making a mistake. Sort of like the Amish say--there's no perfect quilt. And all of us that quilt know that we can look at our quilts and say, 'Well here's a mistake, or I wouldn't do that the same way again.' But there's a learning experience and an evolution that you have in becoming a quilter. But you have to be passionate. You can't be a great quilter if you're not passionate.

AH: What makes a quilt artistically powerful?

EL: Well I think that's in the eye of the beholder. You can go to a place like Houston [The International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas.]and you can see quilts that you would have thought should have won [laughs.] and they didn't because what your eye sees and the techniques that you enjoy aren't necessarily what the judges are looking for because the judges are only human after all. I think what makes a quilt powerful is that it reaches you, it reaches you either because of the colors that were chosen or the placement of the colors that are chosen or the subject matter that is chosen, whether it's whimsy--it doesn't have to be serious--it can be very whimsical. It doesn't have to be geometrically correct for it to be powerful but there has to be something that catches your eye and makes you stop. It also has to--when you look at a quilt, for it to have real impact, I think, every time you look at it you have to see something different. You have to keep getting into it and noticing more and being sucked into the experience of the quilt so that you look at it and say, 'Oh I didn't see that the first five times I looked at this quilt.' Or look at that little corner there, or look at the colors or look at the juxtaposition of the colors. Look at the placement. Look at what is happening there and how is it making me feel and how is it making others around me feel? If you're in a public place watching a quilt, if you go to a quilt show and you're in a public place watching a quilt, it's great fun to watch the other quilters react to a quilt. Are they seeing the same thing I'm seeing? Are they seeing something different? Are they experiencing it the way I'm experiencing it? And is that what the maker of the quilt, the designer of the quilt wanted? You should be inspired when you look at a great quilt.

[pause for seven seconds.]

AH: How many hours a week do you quilt?

EL: That really depends, depends if I'm trying to immerse myself or not. I would say it would vary from twenty hours a week to, maybe between ten and thirty hours a week. That would include hand sewing, because I usually have a hand sewing project so I can do it watching TV. Also depends if I'm into a good book or not. If I'm into a good book, sometimes the quilting just has to wait. [laughs.]

AH: Describe your studio.

EL: With pleasure. My studio was just redone. We lived in the house for four and half years before I decided how I wanted my studio. I'm very fortunate to have a big room, about twenty [feet.] by twenty [feet.] So, I was very fortunate to have a big space that I could really do something with and I just had it completely redone. The floor is tile and I had it made into a quilt pattern so that you have a sense of walking into it. It's got two sewing machine stations along one wall that has windows that look into the woods in our backyard so that's inspiring. It is sort of a light color so that you can hang all different quilts on the wall. It's a bluish color so you can hang all sorts of different quilts on the wall and get to see them and enjoy them and rotate them out. It's got good lighting. One whole wall is a quilt wall; there's a plain design space on it. It's got cabinets around that were built specifically to hold fat quarters on small boards so that they're wrapped so you open them up and see all of the fabrics that are there. And there are a lot of fabrics there because I wrapped all those recently. So there's a plethora of fabrics.

AH: How many?

EL: I knew. When I was done doing it, I knew. There are five fabrics on a sheet and there are [pause for 9 seconds. ] about three hundred pieces of wood that hold five pieces of fabric each. And that's just the fat quarters and anything smaller than a half yard. The larger pieces are in bins so there's a lot. As I said, 'When you have an addiction, you have an addiction.' [laughs.]

AH: Do you belong to a guild?

EL: Yes, I do. I belong to the Asheville [Quilt.] Guild. I was president of the guild two years ago. When I moved here that gave me the entrée into the part of the Asheville society and culture I really wanted to get involved with so the majority of my friends have come from the guild. Some have dropped out of the guild since but have come from the guild and I've been very involved in the guild.

AH: Do you belong to any other groups, quilting groups, bees--

EL: I belong to a bee. A small bee. There are twelve of us. It's a closed bee and we enjoy a lot of the same things, we have lots of differences also but it's a wonderful way to be inspired. We have varying quilting styles. A couple of us are traditional quilters, there are some that are truly art quilters, there are some that span across all of the kinds of quilts, there are a couple of people who are garment makers primarily although they do quilt, but they'll put their quilting into their garments and they teach and some that are really into embellishment so from the twelve of us, if you want help with a project there's someone there that has that expertise. We're very fortunate in that. And it's a very giving group. We're all about the same age and have a lot of the same life experiences although we come from different places and different things. So I belong to the bee and the bee has been very active in the [Asheville Quilt.] guild also. From my bee, [pauses to count.] half of us have been president of the guild, plus all the other offices that members have held. I think that everyone in the bee has held an office at some point or another, multiple offices but six of us have been past presidents so it's very active in the guild.

AH: How often does the bee meet?

EL: We meet twice a month from about 9:30 until about 3:00, twice a month. The first meeting of the month we donate the time to community quilts. We work on community quilts, quilts for Habitat [for Humanity.] quilts for the guild, quilts for other charities. And then the second meeting we work on our own projects.

AH: And do you collaborate on projects?

EL: We collaborate on projects. The community quilts are usually collaborations of two or three or four of us. And sometimes more. We just did a quilt for Lake Logan [Episcopal Center in Canton, North Carolina. ]. There's a center there that we do our annual retreat in and we just did a quilt for them and everybody participated in doing that quilt.

AH: In what ways do your quilts reflect your community or region? [pause for 7 seconds. ] Or do they? [laughs.]

EL: I don't know that they do. I think there's inspiration that comes from my community because living in Asheville, I'm very fortunate to live in a large quilting community and quilts are everywhere. We have a wonderful Folk Art Center which has fabulous quilts. We have public buildings that have quilts. So it's hard to get away from quilts. We have a number of galleries where quilts are displayed and hung. So there's quilts everywhere. Everywhere you look you're exposed to quilts and I find that I'm inspired by that. Not that I mirror those quilts, but I get inspiration for color or sense or a new technique to try. So I think in that way they reflect the community. I think I've made some quilts with my region in mind. I'm working on a bird quilt now that has all the birds that come to our feeders and it should take me probably about a hundred years because it's all hand done so I'm working on that. And so that obviously reflects the region. I have done other quilts that reflect the region. I did a series of four quilts for the seasons, looking out of my studio window so I'm impacted that way. I don't know that I'm impacted as much as I might be but it's hard to live here, in some place that's so beautiful and not know, is the inspiration coming because of this place, or something else? So, I don't know, it's a very hard question to answer.

AH: I'm wondering, how is your quilting experience different living here in Asheville than it was living in Los Angeles?

EL: A lot more choice of fabrics. Not that I need any more. [laughs.] I think I've done the fabric thing. I've really tried. I now challenge myself to use what I have in my stash, which sometimes is more of a challenge than others. I've sort of said that this is my palette and I need to pick from this palette. But there are certainly a lot more choices in Los Angeles. I think that the quilters in Los Angeles--I probably knew more working people who quilted in Los Angles than I do here. I don't know that many working people here at all. Because it's the community that it is, people have come here, gravitated here to retire so that you don't find a lot of people who work and I'm not exposed to them, not in the working world. So I don't see that as a commonality. I think that the quilters I've met here, for the most part, are better quilters. They're more inspirational, they're more daring, they're not as intimidated as the ones I knew in Los Angeles. But I'm a much more sophisticated quilter now than I was in Los Angeles, so it could be that that's the population that I was drawn to versus population now and the friends and whatever. So it's hard to say what the difference in experience is. I try annually to go back to L.A. [Los Angeles.] to either one of the big quilt shows or to Empty Spools, which is a quilting retreat in Northern California and in either of those environments in Los Angeles you have a lot of non-Angelinos. I think in Asheville when you quilt, they're Ashevilleans. I think that the population here tends to draw from all over so people come in from all over but I don't know that I've met quilters here other than the people who are teaching a class, that are not from Asheville or the surrounding area. Where in Los Angeles I met people in other places but again it's where you are at the time. I think that I now gravitate to art quilts and art quilters, before I didn't. So there's a difference there but I don't think that says there's more art quilters here than there, it's just my frame of reference. When I was there I was an early quilter, a beginning quilter, which I still am. By today's standards, when you talk of someone who's been quilting for fifty years, I'm just a babe. I've made a lot of quilts, but I'm just a babe.

AH: Who are some of the quilters who have influenced you or who you admire?

EL: [pause for 7 seconds.] They definitely run the gamut. I took a class last year from Judith Schwartz Smith and that was very inspirational. Some would say that it's not a real quilting class because you paint a quilt. I think that Ruth McDowell was certainly someone who was in the transition when I was going from a traditional quilter to an art quilter. Ruth McDowell--I was lucky enough to take a class with her--was influential. [pause for 10 seconds.] Louisa Smith was definitely an inspiration to me and also someone who helped me transition from more traditional quilts. Mary Lou Weidman. I think the fact that she can talk about life on a quilt shows that there's lots of opportunity to talk about life on quilts. Reynola Pakusich, with her circles and looking at color with circles. So there isn't just one and most of the ones I've mentioned are more art quilters than not which doesn't say that I haven't been influenced by people who are not art quilters but that's the more recent ones I think.

AH: You've taken a lot of classes in quilting?

EL: Yes. I've been very fortunate. I've been to Empty Spools [Seminars in Pacific Grove, California.] six times and taken intense classes, a week-long class and I made a point of taking guild classes whenever I was around to take them both in Los Angeles--in Los Angeles I belonged to two guilds and so I had the opportunity to take classes there frequently--and in Asheville I've taken a lot of guild classes because I think that you always learn something, even if it's not your art in quilting, you walk away with an appreciation for either the way you paint something or the way you use color together or the way you use thread or the way you embellish or you walk away saying, 'I don't want to do that. That's not something I ever want to do again. I've learned, I've tried it, I've done it, but I don't want to do it again.'

[pause for 10 seconds.]

AH: Why would you say quiltmaking is important to your life?

EL: It gives me an opportunity to express myself. It also gives me an opportunity to hide. So it does both. It gives me an opportunity to go within, to become very introspective and figure out how I'm going to do something and why I'm going to do it and get absorbed in the act of quilting and be able to shut out the rest of the world. So it serves that purpose but it also allows me to show who I am and it's one of the mediums you can grow in and grow safely in because if you make a mistake, there's lots of ways to cover it up or just to enjoy it and say, 'Okay I learned something from that.' So I think it's a great growth opportunity. It gives you an opportunity to use your brain, to exercise the brain. We all know as we grow older it's really important to exercise our brain so you get to use, as I always tell Elizabeth, you get to use math, you have to use math. So you get to use math which is a great way to exercise your brain. You get to use color sense which uses parts of the brain that you usually don't use, you get to figure out how to do something. So that you get to and have to, not only do you get to, to be successful, you have to incorporate lots and lots of mental stimulation, hand/eye coordination. So I think it keeps you young. I hope it keeps you young. [laughs.]

AH: In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history in America?

EL: I think that as you look at quilts and I don't know that it's just America, but when you look at quilts and you look at the history of quilts, and the expression that quilts gave, you realize that there was a time when that was the way that women got to bond. You look at the community quilts that they did. Men did the barn raising and women made the quilts. So they got to sit around a quilt frame and assist neighbors and talk, pre- the time when it was easy to have conversations, so you had to go out to do it. When we talk about bees today, that's certainly the impetus for the bees, or from whence the bees came. I think that it has that but we also see the evolution in textiles, for sure, from people taking scraps of fabric from clothing to make utility quilts, you see the art form of people expressing themselves when you see the more elaborate quilting that was done, both the hand quilting and the embellishments of quilts. You see how women evolved with their art and their culture because they tell a story, quilts tell a story, even traditional quilts, even the most traditional quilts tell a story. Whether you buy the Underground Railroad stories, whether you buy any of that, quilts told something about the person that made it, whether they had a vision, whether they had hope, whether they had a family, were they making it for a baby, were they making it for an older person. You learned about the history of people and for a very long time that was one of the few ways women could express themselves, through their fabric, through their textiles, through their knitting and their sewing and their homemaking. Fortunately we've come way beyond that but when you look back you see a lot of our history and you understand why women did what they did and the strength that they had, making a quilt crossing the prairie in a wagon, keeping their family warm, taking shreds of clothing and making a quilt and how many of them have withstood time? That's amazing when you look, historically at old quilts and you look at quilts that people have and have passed down and I'm very jealous of someone who says, 'My great-grandmother made this quilt and I have it.' I'm very jealous of that, that they own quilts like that. I have to have other kinds of linens to represent the handwork, pillowcases and napkins and whatever, because we didn't have quilts, we didn't have that piece to pass down so I'm glad to be able to be passing it down, although our story today, is certainly a much easier story than the women from two hundred years ago who made the quilts and used them.

AH: What has happened to the quilts that you made for friends and family?

EL: I think everyone in the family sleeps under a handmade quilt. All my grandchildren, all five of them and my daughters and son-in-laws all sleep under handmade quilts. The smaller ones definitely become lap quilts, especially on cold days, people wrap themselves in them and enjoy them. The smaller ones hang on walls. I can't say what happened to the community ones. I made six quilts for Katrina so I'm hoping they went to someone who needed them at the time, I hope they're still around. The same with the rest of the community quilts. I don't really know what has happened to them but I know the ones that have gone to family and friends, either as a lap quilt or a bed quilt or a wall hanging, are in use. Now, I've only been quilting for eight years so I would hope that they're still around but I know that they're--

AH: Eighteen [years.]?

EL: Eight. Eight. That's a new quilter. I'm a novice. I've made a lot of quilts but I'm a novice. [laughs.]

AH: I think our time is almost up. Is there anything else you want to add before we conclude?

EL: I think that the history of quilting is an important aspect in our growth as women and as a nation and I hope that the stories of quilters will go on and on as well as the quilts we all make and love go on and on.

AH: Okay. This concludes our interview. It is now 5:12. Thank you, Ellen.


“Ellen Levine,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1858.