Miriam "Mitzi" Wiebe Oakes




Miriam "Mitzi" Wiebe Oakes




Mitzi Wiebe Oakes


Nola Forbes

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


South Burlington, Vermont


Edna Curtin


Please note: Mitzi is not a member of the DAR. While this is a DAR quiltmaker documentation project, membership in the DAR is not required for participation.

Nola Forbes (NF): My name is Nola A. Forbes and today's date is August 11th, 2009, at 9:47 a.m. I am conducting an interview with Miriam "Mitzi" Wiebe Oakes in South Burlington, Vermont for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. We are doing this through the American Heritage Committee of the Vermont State Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Mitzi is a quilter. Tell me about the quilt you brought in today.

Mitzi Oakes (MO): Today I brought in a Redwork quilt. Redwork, of course, is single color embroidery. I do a lot of it, and I always try to hand quilt in the background.

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

MO: This quilt is interesting because it took me two years to make it. Not to do the hand work, but it was an internet quilt, and I was only allowed to get one letter a month. So, it took twenty-four months in order to get the whole alphabet on this quilt. It was after then that I was able to put them together and start making the quilt.

NF: How long did it take you to embroider an individual block?

MO: It depends on how much time I have, and how intricate the block was.

NF: Why did you choose this quilt to bring for today's interview?

MO: Because it has been the quilt that has shown the most interest this summer at the Shelburne Museum, in Shelburne, Vermont. Everybody wants to see their alphabet, and wants to see what their name has, for the Redwork.

NF: You take that with you as part of volunteering at the Museum?

MO: Yes, I volunteer one day a week and bring some of my own quilts. So that people can touch my quilts and not the Museum's quilts.

NF: Good idea. I saw there was something special about the ice cream shop?

MO: Yes. The original pattern had Lizzie's Ice Cream and I decided I would put Mitzi's Ice Cream.

NF: Do you have a favorite flavor?

MO: It doesn't say anything, but I love coconut ice cream.

NF: Umm. [MO laughs.] Maybe the white background represents coconut.

MO: Maybe.

NF: What do you think someone viewing your quilt might conclude about you?

MO: I'm not too sure. I think maybe they would think I'm very old-fashioned.

NF: How else do you use this quilt?

MO: I explain what Redwork is and why it is so popular and where the name came from. Many people don't understand Redwork.

NF: How else do you use this quilt?

MO: Right now, I bring it with me to the museum.

NF: What are your future plans for this quilt?

MO: It will undoubtedly go to my great-granddaughter, who is three years old.

NF: Does she live in Vermont?

MO: No, she lives in Florida.

NF: So, it will travel?

MO: Yes, it will.

NF: Tell me about your interest in quilt making.

MO: I inherited a few quilts from my husband's family. My family never quilted. I got interested in what quilting was in 1979. At the same time the first quilt store opened in Winooski, Vermont. Yankee Pride. So, I took my first classes there.

NF: At what age did you start quilt making, would you say?

MO: You know I'll have to go back because I'm 76 right now and that was thirty years ago. [both laugh.]

NF: We'll make someone else do the math. Who were some of those teachers from whom you learned to quilt?

MO: My very earliest was Judy Thomas who owns Yankee Pride. And also, Deb Tucker who is very well-known now, but at the time was just starting to learn and teach quilting.

NF: How many hours a week do you quilt?

MO: As many as I'm allowed.

NF: Does it change from one season to another?

MO: Yes. I still have a business in my home, so it depends. Summers are pretty tight because we're very busy.

NF: What is your first quilt memory?

MO: I think it was a pillow I made. I hand quilted it. The stitches were at least a quarter of an inch. So, my quilting wasn't very good to begin with.

NF: Are there other quiltmakers among your family?

MO: Not at this time.

NF: Could you tell me about some of your friends who are quiltmakers.

MO: Well, I'm very active in my local quilt guild, and the state quilt guild in Vermont. I am always very active in our annual quilt show. [Champlain Valley Quilters and Green Mountain Quilters' Guild.]

NF: How does your quilt making impact your family?

MO: There are times when they would just as soon not see everything all over the house. [laughs.]

NF: Does your cat help a little bit?

MO: Yes, my cat loves to sleep on my quilts. My cats, I should say, I have two.

NF: Ah. Tell me if you have ever used quilts to get through a difficult time.

MO: I did a lot of small quilts to get through the Katrina hurricane, where my daughter's house was destroyed. She was in desperate need of having small quilts for the hospital. I made as many as possible. And also did the quilt guild. We sent, I think, over seventy quilts to New Orleans.

NF: Amazing. Tell me about an amusing experience that has occurred throughout your quilt making.

MO: This was just recently, when I was doing a Mystery Quilt on a fabric I never worked with before. Batiks. They kept shredding. I didn't realize until I had done all the cutting out that I had two rotary cutter blades in my one cutter.

NF: Oh, my. [both laugh.] So that would be the secret if you wanted to shred fabric?

MO: I think so, yes.

NF: What do you find pleasing about quilt making?

MO: I find it very relaxing, and I love colors.

NF: Any special colors?

MO: Naturally Redwork. Red is one of my favorite colors.

NF: What aspects of quilt making do you not enjoy?

MO: I don't enjoy putting bindings on. I'm not very good at bindings.

NF: You started to mention some of the quilt groups that you belong to. Would you tell me about your local guild first?

MO: I belong to the Champlain Valley Quilters' Guild, which is in the state of Vermont. I've been a member of that since 1995. I've been very active in it. I was chair of their quilt show for quite a few years and held different offices in the guild.

NF: When do they have their quilt show?

MO: In November of each year. At the Shelburne Farms, in Shelburne, Vermont.

NF: That's in one of their renovated barns?

MO: In the coach barn, yes.

NF: You mentioned that they have a newsletter as well.

MO: Yes, we have a monthly newsletter which now, because of modern technology is printed on the internet every month, or it can be mailed, but it's very easy to get on and print it out yourself.

NF: Which of your quilts might have been included in some of those write-ups?

MO: I bring quilts for Show and Tell, and every month [in the newsletter.] there is a part of Show and Tell. Quilts are photographed and then they are kept for their archives, too.

NF: So, you've had a lot shown?

MO: Oh, yeah.

NF: I know you've been involved for four years as a president of Green Mountain Quilters' Guild. [MO served as President from 2005 to 2009.] The most longevity of any of our presidents.

MO: I didn't know that.

NF: Yes. Tell about some of your involvement with that group, and memories. [both speak.]

MO: It's a wonderful group. It only meets twice a year, but it is a group of all the quilt guilds in the state of Vermont. We meet in the spring and the fall. We have a great time. That's all.

NF: Any special recollections you'd like to share?

MO: Other than the board deciding two years ago that they would supply the luncheon. We thought it was a one-time deal, and now they expect their luncheons. The board gets very busy when it comes time for a meeting.

NF: Were you instrumental in commemorating Armed Forces Day at our May meeting?

MO: I think I was, yes. I am very patriotic. I come from a family of servicemen. I do anything I can to keep them in the limelight.

NF: Was it also something that you helped to support the breast cancer awareness emphasis that the guild has [both speak at the same time.] included?

MO: I think that was started maybe before me, but I have pushed it every year so that in October, which is breast cancer month.

NF: I think members have appreciated--[both speak at the same time.]

MO: I hope so.

NF: Your support of those. You have also, over the years, had some involvement with Vermont Quilt Festival. Would you tell about some of those experiences?

MO: I've always volunteered with every job that they have. I've helped with the judges, which is my favorite job.

NF: What do you do as part of that?

MO: I'm the scribe. If I can help it, I like to scribe.

NF: What have you learned through that?

MO: Oh, I've learned that scribing your own quilt is not fun. [laughs.]

NF: And some of the other volunteer duties?

MO: I've worked on the floor. I do white gloving quite often. I've worked in their store, where they sell products. Anything wherever they need anybody. I'm always available.

NF: You've told me that you have a little collection of quilt memorabilia. Could you talk a bit about that?

MO: The one I do love is the Jim Shore cat figurines that are rigged with quilts. Everyone has some kind of a quilt pattern on it. I have a hard time getting by any store that has Jim Shore.

NF: I've noticed quite a few wall hangings here in your home.

MO: I do a lot of wall hangings. My hands don't take big quilts much anymore.

NF: Have advances in technology influenced your work?

MO: Oh, yes, yes, yes. When I first started, there was only scissors to work with and then came the rotary cutter. Some of the new rulers, such as Deb Tucker rulers, have just, I think are amazing, and make quilting much easier. Not mentioning threads, too, that are so much better.

NF: You use the sewing machine, yourself?

MO: I have a very old Viking and a Featherweight. Don't have any interest in getting a new embroidery machine. I'm very happy with what I've got.

NF: You mentioned using the internet for this pattern of the month.

MO: Yes.

NF: Have you used the internet for other sources?

MO: Yes, I have found a lot of patterns. There are great sites on the internet, for any kind of quilt making.

NF: What are your favorite techniques and materials?

MO: I like embroidery. It's something I learned as a child. And I like hand quilting. I do not like batiks. One is being quilted now by a friend of mine. It's all batiks and I've hated every stitch I made in it. I don't know what it's going to look like. [both laugh.]

NF: Other favorite materials?

MO: Just good old cotton. I like cotton material.

NF: What about your battings?

MO: I use, mostly on my Redwork, I use baby flannel. I embroider through that. Then I put the backing on afterwards.

NF: Would you describe the place where you create your pieces.

MO: I have one room which was at one time a bedroom for my sons. It is my sewing room and my computer room. It's the catch-all, but that is where I do my sewing.

NF: Do you have a design wall to help create?

MO: No, I've never had a design wall, I've never had the room for one.

NF: How do you go about designing your quilts?

MO: If they're small, I have a very large board which would be the size of a door or if it's larger I just use the living room floor.

NF: Tell me how you balance your time.

MO: I don't know as if I can tell you how I balance. Because of the business that we still have in our home that comes first. So, I have to, when I'm done with that for the day, then I can pursue my other half, the quilting. The last is cleaning house.

NF: [laughs.] What do you think makes a great quilt?

MO: I think color is what first draws me to any quilt. Rather than the workmanship. I just love colors of quilts.

NF: What makes a quilt artistically powerful?

MO: Undoubtedly the pattern that is used.

NF: Can you think of some that come to mind, that are favorites of yours?

MO: As working at the Shelburne Museum I have been able to see some beautiful quilts. But I love Mariners' Compass.

NF: Then it's both the design and the colors?

MO: Yes.

NF: What in your view makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection?

MO: That's hard to say. Because what I might like you might not like at all. I think it's the person that is making the quilt.

NF: What makes a great quiltmaker?

MO: It doesn't matter if you've made one quilt or a hundred, you're still a great quiltmaker.

NF: Good answer. [both laugh.] Whose works are you drawn to and why?

MO: I've started doing some paper piecing many years ago. George Siciliano has always impressed me with his ability to make small quilts.

NF: Have you taken some classes with him?

MO: I took one class with George, yes.

NF: Did you finish your piece?

MO: Yes.

NF: How big was it?

MO: About twelve by twelve. [inches.]

NF: Are there some other quilters that you are drawn to for their work?

MO: I've always enjoyed doing anything with Deb Tucker.

NF: For those that don't know her, could you describe some of those [both talk at the same time.] quilting experiences?

MO: She started, I think, as a miniature doing work with a miniature magazine. She's just always impressed me. Just her sense of humor. And then recently her invention of the different rulers, that are, I think, the best rulers that I have ever used.

NF: One of those is with the Hunter's Star?

MO: Hunter's Star, and they call them Tucker Trimmers.

NF: Have you made some of her patterns?

MO: Yes.

NF: What were they?

MO: I can't remember. One of them is being quilted now. The ability to make perfect squares, and triangles and flying geese. [laughs.]

NF: Are there other artists have influenced you?

MO: I love Laurel Burch's fabrics. I have done quite a few small wall hangings of her fabric.

NF: What is it that draws you to her fabrics?

MO: Cats and colors.

NF: The two c's.

MO: That's right.

NF: How do you feel about machine quilting vs. hand quilting?

MO: I think there's a place for both but I don't think they should be judged the same if it's in a show. I think they're two different entities in their own.

NF: What about longarm quilting?

MO: It's beautiful and it too has a place in today's quilts. But it still should not be judged with the hand quilted piece.

NF: You mentioned some of your quilts being quilted by others. Are they hand quilting or machine quilting?

MO: The small ones are being done by machine.

NF: Why is quilt making important to your life?

MO: I think it's kept me sane in a very, very wildlife like I have had. Children and their problems and a business that comes and goes. At this time, it's very important that I have something to work on. My husband's not well. It keeps me sane.

NF: In what ways do your quilts reflect your community or region?

MO: Other than the Redwork I do, is probably old New England type of work. That's about all, I guess, I can't say too much.

NF: How many Redwork quilts do you think you have made?

MO: I couldn't even tell you.

NF: An estimate?

MO: Probably seventy-five.

NF: Oh, my. Is there a favorite theme within that, that you enjoy?

MO: Not really. I make small ones, and most of them go to a silent auction for our show every year.

NF: So, you are trying to do different ones all the time?

MO: Yes.

NF: I'm just looking at a couple more on the quilt that you brought today. What was the M for?

MO: M was for manikin, and I think, mirror. One funny thing is that I waited for the T, which came out as a trailer, camping trailer.

NF: Oh.

MO: There were people in Australia that were doing these patterns, too. They didn't understand it because they call them caravans in Australia.

NF: Ah.

MO: So, the lady that was doing this alphabet had to come up with something else for them for a T.

NF: Do you recall what it is?

MO: It was a tree house. So, if you see some of them, they might not have the trailer on there.

NF: That's interesting. What do you think about the importance of quilts in American life?

MO: I think they've always played a very special part in American homes. Keeping homes together.

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

MO: It's been supposedly a women's art. I won't call it a craft, I call it an art. Until recently some men are getting into it, but it's always been a woman's work of art. At the time they would use things that were in the family, they didn't go out and buy new material. So many of the quilts have a history of people's old clothes, things of this sort.

NF: A reflection of the household.

MO: Yes, a reflection.

NF: How do you think quilts can be used?

MO: Many of them that are being used, different charities today such as breast cancer, and there was the American quilt for AIDS, I think, at one time. That was huge.

NF: While you're mentioning that, can you tell about some of the charity quilts you've been involved with?

MO: Our guild makes charity quilts all year long. They are divided up among local charities. Many were made for the new Hope Lodge, that was just built in Burlington, a place for people to stay when they're having cancer treatments. As I said, many of the quilts went to Katrina victims. Every year we do Christmas stockings, quilted stockings, and fill them with different items and bring them not only to children but to nursing homes. One of them is a friend of mine who has a nursing home and they just wait every year for those stockings.

NF: How many stockings does your group make?

MO: I don't know, probably in the hundreds. But the one home that I bring them to is about forty stockings each year.

NF: Wonderful. How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future?

MO: Well they won't last very long if they're used every day. To preserve them they would have to be kept in certain temperature, controlled temperatures, and things of that sort. But really, if you've made a quilt and it's in the family, use it.

NF: You mentioned some that came to you through your husband's family. Would you describe some of those?

MO: One was, and I did not know it until we were cleaning out Bill's grandmother's home, it was in a box, and that was my first inkling of what a quilt was. It was her trousseau quilt, that she never used.

NF: Was it in perfect shape?

MO: Yes. I thought it was very sad that it had never been shown anywhere.

NF: Have you shown that?

MO: I have shown it, yes, many times.

NF: Would you describe it for us?

MO: I can't remember the pattern right now.

NF: Was it a patchwork quilt?

MO: It was patchwork. Then there was a friendship quilt that went along with it. I've always wondered because there's nobody's signatures on it. So we don't know if nobody liked Bill's grandmother [laughs.] or she just never got around to having people sign the blocks.

NF: What age would you estimate, when do you think it may have been made?

MO: It would have to be in the 1920s. That's when she was doing it.

NF: So, the coloring of it?

MO: No, excuse me. This quilt goes back much further than 1920s. The two I have are into the 1800s. The fabrics have been checked by Richard Cleveland. He has them in the 1850s. So it's probably a great-grandmother or something that made them. So they go way, way back.

NF: So they were kind of subdued colors?

MO: Very subdued.

NF: What has happened to some of the quilts that you have made and given to family?

MO: Well, as I said, many of them went to Katrina victims. Before that my daughter had many quilts of mine that did not survive Katrina. By the time the water went down they had just deteriorated into kind of a mush. I have been trying to redo her house for the past five years or so.

NF: Are you working on a quilt right now, for her?

MO: No, this one I just finished is to be for my great-granddaughter.

NF: So do you have something in mind for what you may do for quilts for that daughter?

MO: I had about twenty wall hangings and stuff that I had amassed over the past few years. She was here last December and I said, 'Deb, if you want to take any of those quilts you can.' After she left, a week or so, I looked and she took every single one of them. So I presume she's pretty well set right now [laughs.] with quilts.

NF: Good. She has comfort from home.

MO: Yes. She does.

NF: Have you made quilts for some of your friends?

MO: When I first started quilting I made a quilt for each of my children's marriages. But then, I was on my sixth quilt, and I only have three children, because they kept getting divorced. So now, if I give them a quilt I say if the marriage doesn't work, give me the quilt back. I don't know where all of them are right now.

NF: It was a new policy.

MO: Yes.

NF: What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?

MO: The cost. The cost of fabrics today. And machines. It's very hard to justify the cost of some of the fabrics that people want to use.

NF: How do you think people in this area adjust to that?

MO: Most of the quilters I know are very sale oriented. They look for sales. They watch for sales.

NF: Do you have many local quilt shops that you frequent?

MO: In this area there's two right now that I do. One is Yankee Pride. The other one is the one in Williston. I can't think of the name. Ruth Whittaker's store. Those are the two that have the best fabric, that are just strictly quilt stores. [Yankee Pride Quilts in Essex Junction, and Sew Many Treasures in Williston, Vermont.]

NF: Are there enough quilters in the area do you think to help sustain those shops?

MO: Oh, yes, yes. Even in this recession they are doing very well.

NF: Are they part of the Shop Hop route here in Vermont?

MO: Yes.

NF: Could you tell me more about some of your current projects?

MO: I'm finishing up a few quilts now for our show which will be in the silent auction.

NF: Would you describe those?

MO: One is the little quilt that you saw that had the saying on it, the little poem. I've done that and I might do another one of those for the show.

NF: So that showed some cats?

MO: Showed cats, yes.

NF: You had quilted a crosshatch in the background?

MO: Yes. One of the ways I do hand quilting, mostly. I'm doing one now that I'm starting to embellish with pearls. I've never worked with that before.

NF: A little challenge?

MO: Yes, it's a challenge.

NF: I see something that reminds me of an Amish quilt. Is that part of your favorites?

MO: It's something I made very early on. Right now it's filled with cat hair because that's where they sleep. [laughs.]

NF: Are they Amish cats?

MO: I have no idea. [both laugh. tape recorder makes noise.]

NF: Mitzi, would you tell me a little more about what you do at the Shelburne Museum when you volunteer.

MO: I've been there about seven years. At that time there was a very large quilt exhibit called "Art of the Needle" at the Museum. Since then I have still volunteered every year one day a week. It's one of the most popular buildings in the museum. People are astounded about the art of quilting. It's great fun to explain to people how quilts are made and how they were made a hundred years ago.

NF: Which building is that?

MO: It's called the Hat and Fragrance Building.

NF: How many quilts are on display for the public to see?

MO: The museum has over five hundred quilts. They change them every year. There's probably thirty in the one room where I work. This year they have a special exhibit of a lady named Florence Peto who was not only a quilter but collected quilts and helped the museum get some of the quilts that they have today.

NF: Is there one that seems to be the most popular this season?

MO: It's popular every year, it's called the "Alphabet Quilt". It was done in the fifties. It's got an awful lot of embroidery on it. It's got the alphabet, every flower of every month, it's amazing. It was done by a woman who was handicapped and never left home. The story goes that when she offered it to the Museum, Electra Webb, who was the founder of the Museum, didn't want it because it was too new. But her secretary at the time, Lillian Carlisle, said, 'Mrs. Webb, it's going to get old just like you.' So she accepted this quilt and it is the quilt that people ask for every time I work there. They want to know where it is. At this time it's on tour, so it's not in the museum. [phone rings in background.]

NF: So you demonstrate how to make quilts while you're there?

MO: I demonstrate quilting and explain the different arts, the different methods of quilting.

NF: Is there a question that is asked most frequently by visitors? About the process of making a quilt?

MO: I think the biggest thing is where did they get the fabric a hundred years ago? Or maybe even a hundred and fifty years ago.

NF: What do you tell them?

MO: I explain where fabric came from and how a lot of it was imported. But they also like to know the history of who made the first quilt. And that one I can't answer. [laughs.]

NF: We don't know that one.

MO: No.

NF: Do you think it was a woman?

MO: No, I don't think so. I honestly think it was probably a man that did the first quilt pattern. But the second question I get every year is the Underground Railroad story. Was it true or not that they hung quilts on the lines or in the trees to help the slaves escape.

NF: What do you think is the answer to that?

MO: The answer is no, it's not a truth, it's a myth. I've had some bad people get mad at me, but I've done an awful lot of research on it. It is a nice story but it is not something that really did happen.

NF: Are there other museums with quilt collections that you've visited?

MO: I haven't seen too many. But the Bennington Museum has the second most asked for quilt, I think, in the nation, and that's the "Dear Jane" quilt. Which was done by a young lady in the 1800s, was it?

NF: Jane Stickle?

MO: Yes, Jane Stickle's quilt.

NF: She made it here in Vermont.

MO: She made it here, and the Bennington Museum owns it. I'm asked every week, 'Where's the "Dear Jane" quilt?' I have to tell them that Shelburne does not own it. [laughs.] And they wonder why. [laughs.]

NF: Have you gone to some other quilt shows that you'd like to talk about?

MO: I've seen quite a few of them. Our guild has bus trips twice a year. Many of them go to quilt shows. Mainly in New Hampshire, Massachusetts.

NF: Are there any special things you could tell us about?

MO: No. Except I just think VQF's the best quilt show.

NF: Because it's in your back yard?

MO: I honestly think it has some of the best quilts, too.

NF: Mitzi is there anything else that you would like to add to this interview?

MO: Not really, other than I thank you, Nola, for doing this. I tried to do something like this a few years ago, too, and had no success. So I think it's very important that you're doing something like this.

NF: Volunteers didn't step forward?

MO: Nobody did. Being a volunteer I know what a lot of work you're doing on this.

NF: I'd like to thank Miriam "Mitzi" Wiebe Oakes for allowing me to interview her today as part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories. Our interview concluded at 10:23 a.m. on August 11th, 2009.


“Miriam "Mitzi" Wiebe Oakes,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 16, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2072.