Barbara Williams




Barbara Williams




Barbara Williams


Pam Schultz

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Hastings, Michigan


Eleanor Wilkinson


Pam Schultz (PS): This is Pam Schultz. It is Sunday, April 10th [2011.] at 11:03 a.m. I'm interviewing Barbara Williams at quilt camp at Camp Michiwana in Hastings, Michigan. This interview is being conducted for the South Central Michigan's Quilters Save Our Stories project of the Alliance for American Quilts. How are you this morning, Barbara?

Barbara Williams (BW): Fine, thank you.

PS: Tell me about the quilts you brought in.

BW: I brought two wall hangings that I made in 2001 and 2002, and they're of my mother and her five sisters. I was at a quilt show, and I saw the pattern by Elderberries of four ladies standing in a row. You see them from the back and just the shapes of them, I said, 'Oh, that's my mother and her three sisters.' So, I bought that and then later on I found another one by Elderberries of three ladies sitting on a couch and I figured that would be great, then it's her and her other two sisters so I bought that. Somebody told me how to appliqué so I could make them. So, on the one, I did modify the pattern to suit what these women would be doing and wearing. For the most part, they wore house dresses, and they liked hats, and the one fancy sister wore a bun in her hair and had a feather in her hat and I enjoyed doing the embellishments. I padded their backsides because they were all quite hefty ladies. When I did the one on the couch, that was perfect because every party we went to they sat together, and they kept their tea and coffee on their laps, and I have little coffee cups and again they're embellished with necklaces. And my one aunt had the hat with the rose on and that's what she would wear to church, and they have even real shoelaces in their shoes. I learned to sew at our Friday sewing group and that's when I appliquéd them. It took me so long to make them that one of the ladies said, 'I feel like I know these ladies. Do you have a picture of them?' So, I went home and rooted through my pictures, and I didn't have a current picture. My mother had died years earlier, so I superimposed her in a picture so on the ladies with the couch I have a picture of the six sisters together with my mother superimposed in there. As I was rooting the ladies in the wall hanging from the rear, I found a picture of the exact same four ladies from the rear and so I printed that on fabric and it's like a picture on the wall that those ladies are facing. It was fun. It was machine pieced, hand appliquéd and then there's embroideries where I have my aunts' names under their pictures and then somebody suggested I name my two wall hangings Auntie Bodies and that's the name. It's embroidered on the top of both pictures. It says, "Auntie Bodies.”

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

BW: Well, I have it hanging in the dining room and it's even more precious than the picture because it's so big and I did it to represent the six special ladies in my life. When I was a child, they all meant so much to me. It's a good conversation piece when people come in and see it for the first time.

PS: Why did you choose to bring this quilt to the interview?

BW: Because it's my favorite, my first and my favorite.

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

BW: That I love my mother and my aunts.

PS: And that you're a very talented quilter.

BW: Oh, you think?

PS: I think. I think. You've kind of told me this. How do you use this quilt?

BW: As a wall hanging in my dining room.

PS: And, what are your plans for this quilt?

BW: Well, I hope when I'm not here to enjoy it that my kids won't fight over and want to divide it, but maybe they'll each take a turn having it in their house.

PS: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

BW: Well, I never was even a sewer. I made my kids play clothes because I was never a good sewer and I've made curtains out of sheets. That was my extent of sewing, but while I was working, I had been to an art fair and I had seen a bunch of wall hangings with embellishments and embroidery and little pieces of fabric and I said when I saw it, 'I want to learn to do that' and when I found the class that was doing it, I was working nights and I could not go. We moved to Michigan in 2000, and for New Years' Eve we went to Burnham Brooke for the New Years' celebration and there was appliqué wall hangings in the display counter. Rosemary Kimball and Beth Payne Howard had theirs in there and I said, 'That's it. That's what I want to do.' And I found out they met on Friday so the next Friday I joined their group, and the rest is history.

PS: What age were you when you started quiltmaking?

BW: Sixty-one.

PS: And from whom did you learn to quilt?

BW: Beth Payne-Howard and Rosemary Kimball.

PS: How many hours a week do you quilt?

BW: Well, I don't spend the whole time quilting, because I make a mess when I quilt and then the next day I go down. I try to clean up before I start again. My sewing room is downstairs. I would say I spend I would spend at least twenty, twenty-five hours a week down there. Not enough for me, but too much for my husband and dog.

PS: What is your first quilt memory?

BW: Of an actual quilt or--

PS: In your life, the first memory of a quilt you have in your life.

BW: I don't know anybody that ever quilted. This aunt used to do afghans and [unidentified buzz in the background.] she made them look like quilts with the granny squares and she gave each one of us one of them and, of course they wore out because we only had one. As an adult, after I got married I've been to estate sales and I've bought quilts and then I've bought quilt tops and I thought I would finish them, but I didn't know how to finish them, so I didn't. I've always liked them but never knew anybody to do one for me to get interested in to do it until I joined the group. I do machine piecing now and my hands are getting not as nimble to do as much hand appliqué that I like to do, so I'm starting to do more machine embroidery. I don't like the look of it as well, but at least I can do it and I enjoy doing it.

PS: Are there other quiltmakers among your family or friends?

BW: Friends, yes. I have a lot of lovely quiltmaking friends.

PS: How does quiltmaking impact your family?

BW: Everybody wants a quilt and I can't get them done quick enough. I have thirteen grandchildren and seven great-grands. That's just mine and then my husband has many. I've got all the great-grands, they each have a quilt and I'm a little bit over half way on the grandkids and the daughter-in-laws give me a hard time about them not having a quilt when their kids do. They've got a quilt, so I make the quilts to put out the fires for the ones that demand it get it.

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

BW: Yes. When we had the dog put to sleep.

PS: Oh.

BW: Yeah.

PS: Tell me about an amusing experience that has occurred from your quiltmaking.

BW: Amusing? Well, the first few quilts that I made for the grandkids, I had tied a quilt and they liked the softness of the tied quilts rather than heavily quilted, so I thought I would make them that and my husband and I built a quilting frame. I used to tie quilts for Charitable Union and I saw how it was made so we made one and I was tying quilts there and the cat I had at the time was having fun with the threads on the bottom that I didn't know and when I was done I had all these long things hanging there that he kept me from pulling up to tie and he was in the middle of every quilt I made whether it was on the chair, on the floor, on the frame, anything. He was always right there and that was fun. He had his nose in my business.

PS: What do you find pleasing about quilt making?

BW: Well, I enjoy doing it but the most special thing to me is the friends I made and quilt camp and quilt shop hops and the retreats we go on. And that's when I don't get a lot of work done, because I do enjoy the friendship and having something so dear to all of us in common that there's always something to talk about, something to learn. Everything to me is enjoyable about quilting and quiltmaking.

PS: What aspects of quiltmaking do you not enjoy?

BW: Cleaning up the mess. [both laugh.]

PS: What art or quilt groups do you belong to?

BW: I belong to Cal-Co Quilters' Guild. I belong to the Spring Chix Friday group. I belong to Coopersville Farm Museum. They have a quilt show there every August and September. I belong to the museum and then they quilt on Thursday up there and we try to go at least two Thursdays during August and September to quilt with the ladies there. I always put quilts in the quilt show, well they're quilt tops that my sister-in-law found of her mother's, made in the thirties and forties and she was gracious enough to give them to me so that I could share them with the Coopersville Farm Museum. So, I've got seven of them and I put in two a year up there and [buzz recurs in background.] then I've had my wall hangings up there. I have a close friend that we do shop hops and we go do block-of-the months so we hit quilt shops every month. The other group that I'm in is something new, fabric quilted postcards.

PS: Yes. Tell me about those.

BW: Well, I had it last year, well, it was really 2008. I had heard that there was such a thing as fabric quilted postcards. I had a friend that told me that she did them. She said, 'Oh, I've sent out many and I've never gotten one back.' And I thought, 'Well, I can make a fabric post card.' So I made it. It was like 5 by 7 and I appliquéd a lady with a pretty hat on and sent it to her. Then I thought I can't send her one and not send my best friend one so I made an 8 x 10 one for her, never thinking that a postcard was only 4 by 6. That's all I did for that Christmas. Then in Christmas of '10 I said, 'Oh, I'm going to make fabric post cards.' Well when I wrote my list, I started in November, I only got twelve done out of my whole list, so they're the only ones that did them. But, I went overboard. I was taking like ten hours a card because I hand appliquéd and antlers on reindeers and trees with ornaments on and all that stuff, so I didn't get very many sent out. After that I was hooked. So I got on the Internet and keyed in fabric postcards, quilted postcards and there's instructions on there and pictures and I just started and talked to other ladies and when I found other ladies would be interested in doing it, we started [PS coughs.] a postcard club. We meet at Quilt and Go the second Saturday of every month. There's seven of us and we tell each other you have to have your postcard mailed by the first Saturday of the month so that the person gets it and we can bring it to the club and then everybody ooh's and ah's [hissing sound.] over them. And we say, 'Oh that's cute how you did that,' and we learn from one another and we get to socialize there and then I learned 4 by 6 is what you want it to be. They can be mailed, for the most part, first class mail, not even in an envelope. Some of them get a little smudged, but that's given personality. At camp now, we taught a class yesterday on fabric postcards and I think it went over well. We made an appliqué flag, American flag like blowing in the wind and hopefully we'll have more ladies to join our club. We have one member that's in Florida now so we put her name in and pull for her and she gets one and then mails one back to us every month. It's been fun.

PS: Do they date stamp them or postmark them?

BW: Well if they have a lot of embellishment on it you take it to the clerk at the post office and they'll hand stamp it and then charge you twenty cents extra. [hissing sound recurs.] And that doesn't always work because if they don't put it in the right bin it still goes through the cancellation machine. I've had one, I did a crazy quilt and the corner was so thick because where I had to turn it under it was heavily pieced and that got ragged, but for the most part they get dirty by going through the machine. [PS: inaudible.] But for the most part they make it fine.

PS: It's really interesting. Have advances in technology influenced your work?

BW: Yes.

PS: In what ways?

BW: I don't think I'd ever started piecing if I had to cut all the fabric out with a scissor, without a rotary cutter [hissing sound.] and a ruler and a mat, because just the way I would cut the kids' clothes out, that's why they were only play clothes, cutting all that out with a scissor. [both laugh.]

PS: And I see you've done photo-transfer. [humming sound.]

BW: Yes, I did.

PS: That's kind of magic.

BW: At that time, before I started appliqué I was a computer nut and I was doing genealogy and I learned to photo-transfer so I could put the pictures in another wall hanging that I made, too for my sister-in-law. I had a picture of her parents and brothers and sisters printed on fabric as a wall hanging. Yup.

PS: What are your favorite techniques and materials?

BW: Techniques? Hand appliqué, yes.

PS: That's your favorite?

BW: Yes, my very favorite.

PS: And materials, well--

BW: Hundred percent cotton is what I go to. Now people tell me if you really want something you [papers hiss.] can put a flannel in there and the ladies have, I think it's felt, because I wanted to see a little texture on--

PS: On their napkins.

BW: On their laps. Uhuh.

PS: That's a nice touch. That's a good idea.

BW: That was about the first time that I tried that, and I do like it. I bought a, I called it a long arm, but I've since learned that it's not a long arm because the neck isn't as long as they should be. But I have it in another room in my basement.

PS: Like a deeper throat.

BW: Yes, and it's on a ten foot table and so I can machine quilt my big quilts and the only thing I'm good at is stipple. I'm real good at big stipples. That's worked well for the grandkids' quilts.

PS: That takes me to your next question. Describe your studio or the place that you create.

BW: Oh, my studio is right down at the foot of the basement stairs in the laundry room so I have a washer and dryer and sink and the rest is my sewing room. I bought an eight-foot workbench that has pegboard in the back of it. It has two drawers and shelves and that's where I do my cutting because I don't get a backache. It's nice and high. Got a couple of drawers for all my goodies and the hooks to hang stuff, so everything's within reach and then I bought [hissing sound.] an L-shaped worktable from Staples Office and [recorder is moved.] that's where I have three sewing machines lined up. Then I have a card table with two other sewing machines, well, another sewing machine and [hissing sound.] a serger there. And I've got two chairs that I roll between them. Since I've been doing the fabric postcards I've bought an embroidery machine and that's on one of the tables and I slide between there and the regular sewing machine. My, what I call medium arm is in the family room area out the basement; it's a separate room.

PS: Do you use a design wall?

BW: Yes, I hung a piece of plaid flannel, because I didn't know what else to do with it, on a wall at the foot of the stairs and yes, I do use that.

PS: Tell me how you balance your time.

BW: Not very well. [both laugh.] I'm always in trouble with my husband because, well I go to exercise class three days a week and I go to circle one day a week and I like to go to the quilt shop at least once a week. Needless to say, that he's the cook in the house and I bought a tee shirt that says, 'I quilt, he cooks.' [both laugh.] And he's got a tee shirt that says, 'She quilts, I cook.' There's not enough time to do everything so the cooking and the house suffer. My pets don't suffer. I don't think my husband suffers, but he thinks he does. It's hard to balance, buy my priorities is my husband, my dog and cat and my quilting and everything else below that. My friends are there, too, but the house and yard, if there's time it'll get done.

PS: And it's okay if they don't.

BW: It's okay if it don't.

PS: What do you think makes a great quilt?

BW: Oh, I've seen many lovely quilts that the ladies make. I don't think I've made one that's a great quilt. The kids like them. They think they're great but they're not great compared to what I've seen that others and I think it's the way they know how to put their colors together and I'm not good at that. But, I think it's the way they can do their colors.

PS: What makes a quilt artistically powerful?

BW: Well, to me artistically would be my little appliqué thing.

PS: To me, too. To me, too.

BW: If I do appliqué, to me there is no right or wrong. It's how I see it and my interpretation of what I wanted to show. And it's right because that's the way I want it.

PS: That's right. What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection?

BW: I don't know.

PS: What makes a great quiltmaker?

BW: I don't even think a great quiltmaker has to be a wonderful quilter if she enjoys what she's doing and makes something that's a joy to her that other people get pleasure out of. I would think that's a great quiltmaker.

PS: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

BW: People I know?

PS: Whoever.

BW: Rosemary Kimball's and Beth Payne-Howard does the miniatures and I admire that. Now that I'm doing postcards I really admire that.

PS: Which artists have influenced you?

BW: I like the Loralie fabrics and I like those cute dog and cat fabrics and I like the Elderberries patterns. I have probably five or six of the Elderberries because that's my style.

PS: How do you feel about machine quilting versus handquilting?

BW: I don't like it as well. When I did the handquilting I liked it, but the fingers don't like it anymore. That's just like the machine appliqué. I'm getting to like it because now I'm going to have to do it and I'm getting where I like it because then I'm able to do it.

PS: How do you feel about longarm quilting?

BW: I've had a couple of quilts longarm quilted. I don't think my quilts deserve to be professionally done. [PS: inaudible.] No. [unidentified rattling sound.]

PS: Why is quiltmaking important to your life?

BW: It keeps my sanity. [someone enters room and makes 30 seconds unidentified sound.]

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

BW: I spend a lot of money on fabric and patterns and stuff so I'm good for the economy. [both laugh.]

PS: Yes, you are.

BW: In my region? And I have a lot of wall hangings plus I like anything quilt-related so even if it's a calendar I'll keep it next year for the pictures and I have knick-knacks and it's pleasurable to look at.

PS: What do you think about the importance of quilts in American life?

BW: Very, very important. I didn't know about quilts when I was a child, but as comforting as they are now I wish I would have had them when I was a child. I used to buy quilts at Wal-Mart, made in China and now I think, oh, my goodness. I used to do that? Because I liked the idea of the quilt but I haven't bought any since I started making them.

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

BW: I like to see in the magazines quilts that women made hundreds of years ago and their thoughts are like our thoughts, their children, their family, their animals, their farm life and you would never know that their thoughts two hundred years ago are like ours. And to see that somebody took the time to sew all those little pieces together. I'm not much of a history buff, but when it comes to history on a quilt I'll read it and I'll love it. With the Underground Railroad quilts, that's wonderful that they could find a way to help people just by sewing fabric together.

PS: How do you think quilts can be used?

BW: Well, for comfort and for warmth, for decoration, for creating friendships and keeping friendships. Lots of ways, just fill up your closet.

PS: How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future?

BW: By the museums and the way they know now that they can store them and preserve them and keep them for generations to enjoy. Yeah.

PS: What has happened to the quilts that you've made or of those of family and friends?

BW: I've got two at my house now that need repair.

PS: So they've been loved a little bit?

BW: Oh, they've been loved very much. Yes, and even now that they're too small for them when they're asking for a bigger one, they still want the little one back fixed. Yeah. But that makes me feel good. My husband said when I made five one year and brought to Texas with me, my husband says, 'You know what's going to happen when you give those to those kids?' I said, 'I don't care.' I said, 'Once I give it to them they're theirs to do with what they want.' And they've drug them on the floor. They've taken them out into the yard and that's fine. That's fine. I'd rather that then them being in the closet and when they get married and mother says, 'Here's that quilt Granny made you.' So, yup.

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

BW: Having enough money to buy all that you want to buy. That's my problem. [PS laughs.] and getting it home without the husband knowing how much I bought and how much I have. [PS laughs.]

PS: Is there anything else you'd like to talk about?

BW: No, this is a nice opportunity to keep the knowledge going and in the years to come people can see what we're doing and be surprised that they're doing it too.

PS: I'd like to thank you for your contribution to that.

BW: You're welcome.

[interview ended at 11:35 a.m.]


“Barbara Williams,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 27, 2024,