Mary E. DuBois




Mary E. DuBois




Mary E. DuBois


Eleanor Wilkinson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

A Friend of the Quilt Alliance


Battle Creek, Michigan


Nancy Wilkinson


Eleanor Wilkinson (EW): This is Eleanor Wilkinson. This interview is being conducted for South Central Michigan Q.S.O.S., a project for the Alliance for American Quilts. Today I'm interviewing Mary DuBois at the Westlake Presbyterian Church in Battle Creek, Michigan. Today is April 1st, 20ll and the time is 10:52 a.m. Let's talk about that quilt that is the subject of this interview. Why don't you describe it for me?

Mary Dubois (MD): Well, it's what I call the Ugly Quilt. And our guild had a program where everyone was supposed to make an ugly quilt block and then we'd have a drawing and the person that won would get all of the blocks which I did. I won them. And they weren't too many of them and I had to finish making more quilt blocks to make a quilt size which I did, and I liked the name the ugly quilt and that's what I've always called it. And it's the oldest quilt that I have right now that I have made.

EW: Is it really an ugly quilt?

MD: They say it's not.

EW: That's what I thought. [laughs.]

MD: In a way I've never seen an ugly quilt really. Somebody's worked and created in their own mind. Yes.

EW: Probably wasn't ugly to anybody that made it either, was it?

MD: I don't think so.

EW: So, do you think someone viewing this quilt might think anything particular about how you thought or were making it or anything about you?

MD: Well, I think the name of the quilt would attract them in the first place and then they'll look at it and try to figure out what's ugly about it and what's not ugly. [EW chuckles.] Give them something to think about.

EW: It's always good to do that isn't it?

MD: Yes.

EW: How do you use this quilt?

MD: It's in the cedar chest. I don't use it.

EW: Okay. What are your plans for this quilt?

MD: I have a son and a daughter, and I plan on leaving it to them.

EW: Well, let's talk about your interest in quilt making. When did that begin?

MD: It's always been in my family. My grandmother made quilts and my mother made quilts. My grandmother for everyday quilts she would quilt them by machine, the old treadle machine, and my mother, she didn't believe in that. Every stitch in her quilts were put in by hand. And I married my husband, he was from Michigan, I was from Indianapolis [Indiana.]. I had nobody here, and my husband worked nights before television and so I decided that I wanted to take up quilting. Something to do with my hands while I was alone. And that's how I got started. And the first quilt was a Double Wedding Ring, and nobody told me how hard it was going to be. I had it about two-thirds done and I was using a sewing machine because I worked, you know, and my mother and dad came up to visit. And I had it about two-thirds done. And I hadn't worked on it for a while and momma said she would take it home and finish it up and quilt it. Which she did, but she took out every machine stitched stitch and put it in by hand--

EW: Oh, she had a strong opinion. [chuckles.]

MD: Oh, yes. And I'll never forget that. I felt bad that I put her to so much work, but then I got to thinking, she did it because she wanted to. But that's one quilt I'll never forget.

EW: I'll bet.

MD: And that's what got me started and it's kind of like an addiction because you never go anywhere where there's fabric on sale that you come home without any fabric, hardly ever. Yeah.

EW: And what age do you think you were about that time?

MD: I was about 22 or 23.

EW: Oh, you've been quilting quite a while.

MD: Well, yeah, I never did too much when I was raising two children and we lived on a farm, and I just didn't have the time. And then, I developed trouble with my wrist and for a long time I had to quit sewing and now I've slowed way down.

EW: And who would you say you learned to quilt from?

MD: Learned how? My mother. Yes.

EW: And how many hours a week do you think you quilt now?

MD: Not too many now. Like I said, my hand is bothering me, and my health isn't too hot, and I was going to do a lot this winter and I just haven't got to it.

EW: You told me your grandmother and your mother both made quilts. Think about your first quilt memory.

MD: My first quilt memory, my mother, there in Indianapolis there was a factory that made men's suits and they were all made of wool back then and my mother knew somebody, and she bought wool pieces and she cut them into blocks, and she sewed them together and she tied them. And my first memory is laying in bed at night with one hand trying to undo those knots. [both laugh.] I'll never, that's something--

EW: And how old were you then?

MD: Oh, well I was old enough to know better [EW laughs.] but, well I wasn't in my teens yet. Yeah.

EW: What's happened to that quilt?

MD: I don't know.

EW: Okay.

MD: I really don't. But they were warm and heavy, she used outing flannel for the backing, and they didn't slide off either.

EW: I'll bet they didn't.

MD: No.

EW: Did she have any kind of a bat inside?

MD: Yes. Army blankets.

EW: Really. That really was heavy.

MD: Heavy, yeah. It took me a long time to get used to, after I was married, to get used to lighter weight on the bed, I didn't feel warm for a while.

EW: I can see why that would be.

MD: Yeah.

EW: Oh, that's interesting. And--

MD: I think she bought the army blankets at, like, Goodwill, or places like that. Yeah.

EW: That was in Indianapolis.

MD: Yes.

EW: What about, well you mentioned that you didn't do too much quilting when your children were growing up.

MD: No.

EW: So, this question is, how does your quilt making impact your family?

MD: Well, they like to see what I do. They enjoy it and I know my mother gave each one of her grandchildren, when they got married, as a wedding gift, a quilt that she'd made. And I know that my son and my daughter, it really has a meaning to them and all my nieces and nephews, those quilts really have a meaning. Over the years I've come to realize that.

EW: That someone spent that time to make something for them?

MD: Yes.

EW: I think it's an expression of love, don't you?

MD: Pardon?

EW: I think it's an expression of love.

MD: Oh, yes. And I think you realize that. I think of my children and my nieces and nephews, the longer they have those quilts the better care they're given them.

EW: Oh, that's interesting.

MD: And it gives them, they talk, and it brings my mother's name into it. And I like that.

EW: That's cool.

MD: Yeah.

EW: Yes. Tell me if you've ever used quilts to get through a difficult time.

MD: No, I don't think so.

EW: Okay. Have there ever been any amusing experiences connected with your quilting?

MD: Amusing?

EW: Umhmm.

MD: Well, sometimes when I've made a mistake and didn't want to have to take out stitches, I've had to laugh rather than cry. [EW chuckles.] Yeah.

EW: Okay. What is it you find especially pleasing about quilt making?

MD: Well, you get a sense of accomplishment and while you're working on them it gives you a peaceful feeling, it's just a good feeling. You're doing something you want to do, not something you have to do.

EW: Yes. That's very true. Are there any aspects of quilt making that you don't enjoy?

MD: Cutting out.

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

MD: I belong to the Cal-Co Quilt Guild. [Cal-Co Quilters' Guild, Battle Creek, Michigan.] Like today, we're a circle meeting and I belong to a circle of four ladies, we don't have to quilt, but two of us, mostly when we have our meetings, that's what we're doing. The others can do what they want to do, or we can do what we want to do, but it started, we belonged to this circle and this circle led to the four of us. It takes four to sit around a kitchen table.

EW: So you take a little hand work to do while you're--

MD: Yes. Yes.

EW: Are there any advances in technology that have influenced your work?

MD: The sewing machine and the rotary cutter. I wish my mother had lived long enough to see the rotary cutters.

EW: Yes.

MD: A story. She and my dad spent winters in Arizona, and they drove out and she'd sit there hand sewing on quilt blocks, and she was supposed to be the navigator and the joke was that dad, say, would come up to a corner and say, 'Which way do I go Helen?' She'd say 'Just take either one, it don't make any difference.' [EW laughs.] I've heard that so many times.

EW: It's one of those family stories.

MD: Yeah.

EW: Tell me about the place where you create. Do you have a sewing room or a studio?

MD: No. In the summertime my sewing machine and sewing materials are on the front porch, it's glassed in and screened in. And then in the wintertime it's wherever I can place the things. My bedroom, I don't have room for a sewing machine anymore, so usually it's at one end of the front room and then at the other end my husband's got his jigsaw puzzle set up, so we both have room to do what we want.

EW: So, then you can leave your sewing machine up?

MD: Yeah. I do. I keep a towel over it, and I hate putting it up and taking it down every time I can use it.

EW: I think it makes a difference. If it's up, you can get to it easily.

MD: Yes. And it don't take extra time to do that.

EW: Yes. Do you have a design wall?

MD: No, not really.

EW: Okay.

MD: No.

EW: How do you, when you're making a quilt, how do you--

MD: Bed.

EW: Okay. [chuckles.]

MD: Top of the bed. That's the way my mother did. I helped her. She would go crossways in the bed and start with the backing and then the filling and then the top, smooth everything out and then we started stitching.

EW: That's worked all these years, hasn't it?

MD: Yes.

EW: And how do your balance your time now?

MD: Well, my age is making a difference. I'm eighty-eight. My husband is ninety and he's fighting cancer. I don't have the time that I would like. I just do the best I can. I don't have, I can't plan my time. I just, like I say, when I can.

EW: Did we talk about how much you quilt during the week?

MD: Yes, but I don't really have an amount.

EW: Okay.

MD: I think one way or another, cutting out or washing fabric, or pressing fabric, I'd say maybe five or six hours of the week, yeah. Or even thinking.

EW: Well, thinking is important too, isn't it?

MD: Yes, it is.

EW: Let's talk about craftsmanship and aesthetics and things like that. What do you think makes a great quilt?

MD: Well, first you start with the pattern and then the colors, the workmanship, and sometimes, for some reason or other, it's more pleasing to the eye to one person than it is to another. I found that out. Did that answer it?

EW: Well, that's fine. When you are designing a quilt, do you ever start with an inspiration fabric? Or do you really start with the design first?

MD: I start with the pattern first. Yeah.

EW: And then you go to your stash?

MD: Yes.

EW: Okay.

MD: That's funny you ask about, they have a list of why you buy, have your stash? And I like the one that says fabric makes good insulation. [both chuckle.] When you store it in the closet.

EW: --the closet, yes.

MD: Yeah.

EW: What do you think makes a quilt artistically powerful?

MD: Well, I think, one thing I don't like is if it overwhelms me when I look at it. I want to see it for what it is, the pattern and the colors, to all blend. That's about the best answer I can think of.

EW: And when you go to a quilt show what is it that attracts you to one quilt over another?

MD: If it's too busy, I don't care for it. The workmanship and the colors and the pattern again. Those all stand out, I think.

EW: What do you think makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or special collection?

MD: Well, the age. Workmanship. A purpose, you know, like quilts that, like they put a message in the patterns for the slaves when they--

EW: The underground railway?

MD: Yes. Now, that would be something really interesting. A history. Who made it? There's a lot that goes into that, yeah.

EW: What do you think makes a great quiltmaker?

MD: Patience.

EW: Yes. Okay. Is there anyone whose works you are especially drawn to?

MD: There's a quilt that Jane is working on right now, it's applique. Has a lot of leaf shapes, but it, I can hardly wait till she gets that done, it's going to be a beautiful quilt. It just strikes me right, yeah.

EW: It will be fun to see when it's done.

MD: You'll want to look at it out there, she's got one block there almost done.

EW: Okay.

MD: And it's striking.

EW: Okay. That's good, I'd like to do that. Are there any artists that have influenced you?

MD: Yeah. But I can't tell you, her name. I have two or three of her books and she had a booth over to the Marshall [Michigan.] fair, but she wasn't there herself, I can't think of her name.

EW: Not Edyta?

MD: Who?

EW: Edyta?

MD: No.

EW: Okay.

MD: But [pauses 5 seconds.] I can't think of her name, I'm sorry.

EW: That's okay. How do you feel, now we get back to this historical argument that your grandmother and your mother had about machine quilting and hand quilting [MD laughs.] And what is your opinion about this?

MD: Machine quilting. I have seen some beautiful work done by machine, and I mean, not in a quilting machine, but a sewing machine. And I think there is an art to it. And I have seen some of that artwork and I consider it beautiful.

EW: And what about the longarm quilters?

MD: They're fine. I've seen some of their work that has really been outstanding, and I've seen some that hasn't been. I think it depends on the person and their talent.

EW: And their choice of design?

MD: Umhmm.

EW: And for you? You always hand quilt?

MD: No, I can't hand quilt anymore. Maybe a miniature, but to really get it accomplished it takes time and the wear on my wrist that I don't want to go through that again.

EW: So, do you machine quilt or do you send it out?

MD: I've been tying.

EW: Ah. I forgot about that.

MD: Yeah, I've been tying.

EW: Okay.

MD: I've got two of them that I brought in here and we put together and pinned and I'm in the process of tying. And I don't work at it too long. I try to, you know, spread it out.

EW: That's a good idea. Why is quilt making important to your life?

MD: Well, I think it keeps me in touch with my mother and my grandmother.

EW: Oh yes. And do you think your quilts reflect your community in any way?

MD: Well, that there are quilters that you get together and as a community I think that we have helped, we've donated, and, yeah, I think it's a sense of community is one of the things, you belong to a guild or circle.

EW: Very good. And what about the importance of quilts in American life?

MD: In American life? Well, it's an art form. It is something to look forward to, quilt shows, I was working at the quilt show in Marshall one time and people were signing in where my station, and some man came out and I asked him if he enjoyed the show and he said he certainly did, he said it made him remember his mother and her quilting.

EW: Isn't that interesting?

MD: I'll never forget that. It gave me something to think about.

EW: Yes, yes. And what do you think quilts, in what ways do you think quilts have a special meaning for women's history in America?

MD: Well, it's something to be proud of. You, I don't know how to explain that. It's just something that women do and we, most of the time, get complimented on it, it makes us feel proud of ourselves and what we've done. It gives us incentive. That's about the best answer I can think.

EW: That's a good answer. How do you think quilts can be used?

MD: Well, like we said, it makes you think of somebody when you use them. You can use them for decorating your home, for gifts that have a lot of meaning to them, that's about it.

EW: And do you think quilts should be preserved for the future?

MD: Oh yes.

EW: And how do you think you'd go about that?

MD: Well, treat them tenderly. Yeah.

EW: What has happened to quilts that you have made?

MD: Well, they've been given away. I don't put quilts on my bed. I won one at the quilt show and my husband, he says he's never slept under it yet. I show it to everybody. I'm real proud of it, but I don't want anything to happen to it.

EW: Oh. So, you don't sleep under a quilt?

MD: No, I don't.

EW: Okay.

MD: Because you wash your bedding quite often and I think that's a little hard on quilts.

EW: It might be. What do you think is the biggest challenge facing quiltmakers today?

MD: Price of fabric.

EW: Oh yeah. This is the end of our questions. Is there anything that you would like to talk about especially?

MD: No. I didn't think I had anything to say.

EW: I think you did very well and I'm just so grateful that you took the time to talk to us.

MD: Well, I thank you and I'm going to thank Jean for telling me I should do this. She was right.

EW: I'm going to thank her too.

MD: Okay. And I thank you. And I'll bring my ugly quilt in next week.

EW: All right. This concludes our interview, and it is now 11:17.

MD: Okay.


“Mary E. DuBois,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024,