Barbara Miller




Barbara Miller




Barbara Miller


Eleanor Wilkinson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Battle Creek, Michigan


Eleanor Wilkinson


Eleanor Wilkinson (EW): This is Eleanor Wilkinson . This interview is being conducted for South Central Michigan QSOS, a project for The Alliance for American Quilts. Today I'm interviewing Barbara Miller at the Art Center in Battle Creek, Michigan. Today is September 22, 2010 and the time is 10:26 a.m. Let's start by getting out the quilts that we are going to discuss today. That's good. Talk to me about this quilt.

Barbara Miller (BM): This quilt. I suppose it's my most precious. I've quilted for over fifty years. In 1977 I was working on this. There weren't a lot of books and I had collected pictures and patterns from what books I could find at the library and a few magazines. Drafted most of the blocks. A couple, the Royal Pacific here [points to a block with a yellow flower.] and another one I ordered through an address I got in a magazine. So, that wasn't an original with me anyway. They're none of them original, they're just all old. I just redrafted them. I was working on them through the summer and my mother gave me a few pieces that I wanted to fit in and we discussed the patterns and then, tragically, in October she passed away at the age of 52.

EW: Oh, my goodness.

BM: Yes, and I kept working on it and it must have taken me a year or two. I look back and I was thinking of her with every block. It's machine appliqué. At the time that was sort of frowned upon. Everything needed to be hand done. You know, if it isn't hand quilted it isn't really a quilt. I kept working on it and, like I said, I thought of her in every block. That's why the name, "Remembering Margie."

EW: So it was a kind of a sweet/sour sort of memory.

BM: Yes. I did it quilt as you go [conversation in next room is heard.] and it took me a year or two to find just what I wanted for the border or to decide on the sashing. Then I did a couple of false starts. I at first had a wide sashing. Didn't please me at all. Two rows. I took it back out. I tried something else. That didn't please me either so I put it back. I think it took about; it was in 2001 when I finally put it all together. So, what is that? From '77?

EW: It was quite a length of time.

BM: Yes. I say it was almost an antique before I finished it. I was picky about what I wanted to do with it. Any way, it's "Remembering Margie" and I think of my mother every time I see it. It lives on my spare bed upstairs and I have to go visit it every now and then.

EW: What do you think that somebody viewing this quilt might think of you?

BM: Of me?

EW: Think about you.

BM: Oh, that I like appliqué, I suppose. But actually my first love is piecing. I don't remember now why I did appliqué. There is machine appliqué. I tell everybody machine appliqué, not with a blind stitch, but the satin stitch on top. I think it's a hold-over from elementary school. You know, you did the crayon. You outlined and then you filled in.

EW: Well, it was quite an ambitious project for a first quilt.

BM: It wasn't the first.

EW: It wasn't the first?

BM: Oh, no. I've been quilting since I was about sixteen.

EW: Oh, you were?

BM: The summer I was sixteen--back to my mother again. The summer I was sixteen I was so bored. She said, 'Well, here, I've saved up these pieces of clothes.' That's what we did back in the late 50's.

EW: That's right you used the good parts of the clothing.

BM: Yes. Yes. Let's make a quilt. So I remember sitting on the porch hand quilting, now mind you, a Nine Patch and a Dresden Plate.

EW: Wow.

BM: A few years later, when I was married, she quilted both of them. Gave me the Nine Patch and she kept the Dresden Plate. And, sadly, we wore it out. The kids came along. They used that Nine Patch until it was used up.

EW: And I bet they loved it, too.

BM: Oh, they did. Yes. One said to me one time, 'Mom, I didn't know there was any such thing as blankets growing up. We always had quilts.'

EW: So that is when your interest in quilt making really began?

BM: Yes. I was making part of my own clothes a few years before that. I did doll clothes when I was six or seven years old. I date the interest in quilting from age sixteen, which is--we won't even talk about how long ago that is.

EW: Okay.

BM: Over fifty years!

EW: All right. Was your mother a quilter then?

BM: Just sort of utility quilts. Yes. She didn't do anything fancy.

EW: Did she hand quilt?

BM: Like I said, back then that's what you heard. If it wasn't hand quilted it wasn't a quilt.

EW: Then it wasn't proper?

BM: Yes. And to jump ahead to 1989, I went to Paducah [Kentucky.]. I went into a hotel and there on the front page of the paper was 'Carol Fallert Wins With Machine Quilted Quilt.' Oh, I floated through that show. [unidentified sound.] I was so happy. Validation!

EW: Absolutely. How many hours a week do you think you quilt now?

BM: At least ten or more. Some weekends that's mostly what I do. I'm retired now, so I have a little more time.

EW: Let's go back to when you were sixteenish and think about what your first quilt memory might be.

BM: Sitting on the porch, hand stitching those two quilts with Mom.

EW: And are there other quiltmakers in your family besides you and your mother?

BM: Well, when I married, my husband's mother, my mother-in-law, was a big quilter. I remember, in her spare room she had this ladder-back chair and it always had six to eight quilts folded up on it. Anytime there was something in the family, a wedding, she would give away the quilts. She gave us one, which I learned later on was a Weather Vane pattern. I didn't know it at the time. It was in lavender and green. She was big into quilting.

EW: How does quilt making impact your family in the recent past?

BM: In the recent past. Well, it's when my younger son married, I and my two older daughters put together a quilt for them and my middle daughter designed it. And we all worked on it.

EW: Oh, that's cool.

BM: Put the last few stitches in the night before the wedding. Hand quilted it. Oh, they said it had to be hand quilted. My youngest daughter--I have three daughters--and my youngest one wanted to make a quilt. She is an editor with a magazine in Indianapolis [Indiana.] so she doesn't have a lot of time. She wanted to make a quilt so at Thanksgiving last year we got together, all four of us, and we helped her put together a quilt. It's not the fanciest thing in the world. She wanted a blue and green quilt so we put it together and then we tied it. It's on her bed now.

EW: You know, tying quilts is sometimes the first quilt that people make. And they think that they've made a quilt, but they really haven't.

BM: They've made a comforter. [both laugh.]

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

BM: Oh, yes.

EW: You told me about this one.

BM: Oh, yes, when my mother died. Yes. Strangely, [conversation in next room.] the son I was talking about that we made the quilt for, he died of an aneurism six years ago and, strangely, then I just quit quilting for about six, eight months. I just couldn't. And when I did get back to it they were passing out a pattern at our club in stars, different stars, and I made it in grays and blacks. I have a name for the quilt, which isn't completely finished yet, "Dark Times" because those were very dark times.

EW: Yes, then that represents a kind of a memorial to him?

BM: Yes. It was strange because when Mom died this was a comfort, working on this "Remembering Margie" quilt. But when my son died I just had no interest. I guess I was depressed.

EW: You could have been. Not surprising. Are there any amusing experiences that you have had with regard to your quilts?

BM: Many. Many. My granddaughter, C.J., she's in college now and when she was about six or seven she was interested in quilts and she learned to hand piece at a young age. I gave her a small wall hanging I had pieced together and she was going to tie it. I had to physically restrain the child from putting any more of those fuzzy ties on it because she wanted to keep going. And then her little sister, oh, my. I was hand quilting a Hawaiian sampler quilt which I, that's my second favorite next to this one. Anyway, it was on the frame and one morning I went in and there was this slash in the side of it, about three inches long. I thought 'Oh, what have I done? I've laid my scissors down wrong.' And, well, okay, I put a little dart in it. I had to repair it, the thing was almost finished. It must have been some time that week, she came to me and says 'Grandma, I'm sorry I cut your pretty quilt.' She was the one that had the accident.

EW: One of those things that just happens? What do you find most pleasing about quilt making?

BM: Most pleasing. I enjoy piecing, and as you can see I enjoy machine appliqué. The feel of it? The designs, I like the designs. The very first one that I made on my own after I was married, a friend had a Grandmother's Flower Garden, with the hexagons. I was the oldest of six children. My mom would never have time to make one for me so I drafted a hexagon and I got started, and I made the quilt. Sadly, we've worn that one out, too. Nobody told me that hexagons were hard to piece.

EW: They are a little tedious aren't they?

BM: So that was my very first one all on my own. I like the piecing. I bog down, sort of, I'm that stereotypical quilter, I guess, that gets the top done and then 'Okay, what do I do now?'

EW: Do you plan your whole quilt before you begin?

BM: Not always. I like working from the center out a lot of times and then just add whatever. I tell my kids the quilt talks to me.

EW: Many people say that.

BM: Yes, they talk to you. They do. You see them laying there and they'll say 'Yes, put this border on.'

EW: There are a lot of decisions to make when you are designing a quilt. So, you find, sometimes you start a quilt and it kind of just grows?

BM: Yes.

EW: Are there any aspects of quilt making that you don't enjoy?

BM: Basting, probably. I don't want to put in something I know I'm going to have to take out.

EW: Oh, I hadn't thought of that.

BM: The spray basting stuff. Oh, it's great.

EW: You like that? That's one of the new technologies.

BM: That's better. Yes, it's right up there with the rotary cutter.

EW: Let's talk about the organizations that you, quilting organizations that you are affiliated with.

BM: I joined the Noble Nimble Thimbles. Our county is Noble County [Indiana.], Noble Nimble Thimbles. They started in early '91 and I resisted going, of course I had a houseful of kids at the time. I was very busy. It was early '93 before I joined. Until then I tell everybody I was a closet quilter. I just was all on my own. I joined them, a great bunch of ladies. I was president for six years after the first president and founder, Mary Burns, died. A few years into it, after I joined we decided that some of our friends needed more hands-on help than a large group so we formed the Material Girls group. We named ourselves the Material Girls and so we have about twelve or fifteen in that group. It's more hands-on than the larger group. Then my friend, Caroline North began a morning group because some people said well they just didn't want to come out at night. That's in Rome City [Indiana.] and that's the Cotton Blossoms. So I go to three different clubs each month.

EW: That keeps you busy.

BM: That keeps me busy. Everybody has a challenge.

EW: Let's go back to the advances in technology that we referred to briefly. Are there any that have influenced your work?

BM: That rotary cutter. "Remembering Margie" didn't get finished until I discovered the rotary cutter. Because the strips, the sashing, it's so much easier to get it straight with that rotary cutter. Scissors just didn't do it as well. That would be the number one, that rotary cutter. Oh, funny stories. The rotary cutter, when I first bought one I bought the rotary cutter and a ruler. I didn't buy the mat. So I'm experimenting with it and I cut up a Sears catalog really good. I bought the mat.

EW: There really was a need for that wasn't there?

BM: There was a need for that mat. You've got to have that mat.

EW: And what about sewing machines?

BM: Sewing machines. The first one I ever owned, well I learned to sew first on my mom's treadle, Singer treadle. The first one I bought in my early married life was a Kenmore straight stitch and I had that thing for about six years, a great machine. Then I bought a Singer Touch and Sew. I love that winding the bobbin inside without having to take the bobbin out. Love it. I wore that poor machine out, bought another one. A couple of years back my daughter bought a top-of-the-line Bernina and she still had a very serviceable Bernina so I bought her old one. So now I have a Bernina, too. Berninas seem to be better at machine quilting than Singers. Not that I want to dis my Singer. I have an old Singer war horse that just does a straight, zigzag and blind stitch, is all it does. It's been going now for twenty years and still does really good. I don't trust it for machine quilting.

EW: I see. It's an older machine?

BM: Yes, an older machine.

EW: What are your favorite techniques and materials?

BM: I like all materials. They laugh at me at club all the time. I'm not a cotton purist. There's a place for cotton. If you are hand appliquéing cotton is the best. If you get any polyester in it it's too springy. It springs back, won't make a good crease for you. But I use any materials. I just like them all.

EW: You don't have a favorite technique?

BM: Favorite technique?

EW: It's hard to choose between whole cloth and appliqué and piecing?

BM: Piecing, piecing. I like piecing. I like the old traditional patterns and maybe change them a little bit or tweak them.

EW: Tweaking is something I hear is very popular. Describe the place where you create.

BM: Well, when we bought our house the people before us had used it as an office. It's just 9 x 10 feet. It's not very big. It's just off the kitchen. It's close to the refrigerator. I don't know if that's good or bad. It's crowded. It's crowded. It wouldn't be quite so crowded if I wasn't so messy. I can't sew without making a mess.

EW: Of course not. So you have your cutting table in there, your sewing machine?

BM: The cutting table, sewing machine, ironing board, tape player.

EW: Your stash?

BM: Well, the stash is all over the house.

EW: I see.

BM: It's upstairs. It's in the closet and in the sewing room.

EW: How do you balance your time now?

BM: Like I said, I'm retired, but I spent thirty some years doing sewing for other people and fifteen of those was doing alterations for the local men's store. So my name got around and there are still some people who have been clients for thirty years that come and say, 'Can you hem this?' and you can't turn them down. So I try to fit that in. But I tell them all, 'Hey, I don't do a lot anymore.'

EW: So your quilting is your first priority?

BM: After my family. My family keeps me busy, too. They take me on trips.

EW: Well, that's a wonderful thing, isn't it?

BM: That's wonderful.

EW: You don't use a design wall?

BM: No, I have sort of inherited one from a friend who passed away last fall and I don't have it up yet. But I've never used one.

EW: So, when you're piecing a quilt do you lay it on the floor or--

BM: Sometimes. Sometimes I go to the kitchen table.

EW: So you get a view of what you need to do next?

BM: Yes. My daughters laugh at me because lately, last few years, it seems like I make a lot of little ones. Don't make bed size.

EW: How many bed-sized quilts do you use?

BM: In use right now in my house? One, two, three, four with probably a dozen in the closet. And every time I go to visit my daughters, my brother, my sister, it's like visiting my quilts. I go to visit my quilts as well as my relatives.

EW: So you've given a lot of quilts away?

BM: Oh, yes.

EW: What plans do you have for all the quilts that you have made?

BM: Well, the family, I suppose, and sometimes I give them away. I donated one to a charity for someone last year. I gave one away for a wedding; my nephew got married. I guess it's sort of back to what I was saying about my mother-in-law having that ladder-back chair full of quilts to give away. I have a whole stash and it's ready. I just have to decide which one I can part with.

EW: Ah, yes. And do you think, well you mentioned that you had worn out a couple of quilts and so do you think that quilts should be used or saved or--

BM: They should be used. I tell everybody I don't want one I can't wash. I love to go to Paducah to the big quilt show and it seems to me that in the last twenty years quilting has become so tight with the machine quilting that it's getting down to its flat and it's stiff. I like quilts best when they're sort of marshmallowy when you squeeze them with your hands. Not quilted so close together.

EW: And do you use cotton batting?

BM: No.

EW: What do you use?

BM: I like the more lofty, not the high loft but I like the way the polyester gives a little bit of lift to it. Now the cotton, two, maybe three quilts that I have that are pretty well worn, but I just won't junk them or cut them up or anything and they had the cotton batting from back in the 60's that wasn't bonded. No matter, quilt it two inches, still you hold it up to the light you can see it bunchy under there.

EW: [clears throat.] What do you think makes a great quilt?

BM: One that just makes you go 'Ooooh' the first time you see it. The color and the design. For me the quilting comes third. Yes. The color and design are first.

EW: And do you think that's what makes a quilt artistically powerful?

BM: I think so. Yes. I do appreciate the quilting. I'm in awe of some of these girls. One girl in our group, Doris Goins, she is just absolutely great. She has a longarm machine. She quilts for other people. She's terrific at it. But the quilting part, like I said, it comes third.

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

BM: Appropriate. Ones with interesting stories behind them I would suppose. Well done. You wouldn't want something--you see a lot of folk-art quilting which is not my thing but I'm sure it has a place. It's nice to see them well done. Comes to mind, Lina Zercle from over in the next county, that's DeKalb County [Indiana.]. She does sort of folk-art portraits. She had an exhibit, oh where was that South Bend [Indiana.] I think it was, last year. It's not my thing but you can just see the fun this woman was having. You look at her pieces and you think, 'Oh, she really had a great time with that.'

EW: And so, what do you think makes a great quiltmaker?

BM: A love of the art, I suppose. An interest, a passion.

EW: Are there special people whose works you are drawn to?

BM: Oh, yes. I love Caryl Fallert's work. I've never done any of her patterns, or anything, but I love to go see her gallery every time I'm in Paducah. She's wonderful. Ellie Sienkiewicz. I took a class with her one year and her method of appliqué to put the freezer paper on top of the piece and then cut it a little bit, sew it a little bit. I love that. Sarah Nephew. I wrote them down so I wouldn't forget their names. [paper unfolds.] I love her six-point, her sixty-degree triangles and diamonds. They just look so three dimensional. I've done some of her patterns. Georgia Bonesteel, with the quilt-as-you-go. Yes, I think I have every one of her books. I had a class with her one time, too. She is just the sweetest thing. Jinny Beyer, her quilts, her designs are great. Did I get them all?

EW: Which artists would you say have influenced you most?

BM: Probably Georgia Bonesteel with that quilt-as-you-go, because I don't think until I saw her on TV, I forget how many years back, I never thought about doing quilt-as-you-go.

EW: And is that the way you work now?

BM: I do a lot of that now. Yes. It just seems to go well.

EW: Is most of your quilting machine quilting now?

BM: Yes, most of it.

EW: After all, you were a pioneer in that. [both laugh.]

BM: The last one that I did completely by hand was that one that the granddaughter clipped. That's been ten or twelve years back.

EW: What about the discussions that have been had about machine quilting versus hand quilting.

BM: There's a place for both, I think, a place for both.

EW: Why do you think quilting is important to your life?

BM: To my life. Well, I love it. As you can see I even love talking about it. I tell my friends, I get started, 'Stop me when you get bored now.' It's sort of a connection all the way back to our ancestors because you can see that in simpler times they needed to quilt in some form. They needed those quilts.

EW: Let's talk a little bit about the importance of quilts in American history.

BM: Just that, they needed it. This thing that's so big now about the Underground Railroad. I don't know if I buy into those myths or not, but, still, it's interesting to see the different styles from different eras. It goes so far back. In ancient Egypt they've found quilted pieces.

EW: That's true. How do you think quilts can be used other than, perhaps, bed quilts?

BM: Well, hang them on the wall. Put them on the bed. As gifts, they're great gifts. I think most people appreciate a quilt when you give one to them. If you're into it and you like it, it makes you happy.

EW: That, too. How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future? Or should they be preserved for the future?

BM: Some should be preserved. The better ones, like my "Remembering Margie." I've made denim quilts when my kids were young. They loved denim quilts. They'd see the good parts of their worn-out jeans put into a quilt. Those, I don't know how many of them they've worn out. Yes, the better ones should be preserved. I think mostly the ones, the antique ones that are passed down are probably the best work of the quilter because they would use up the lesser ones and protect the ones, they thought were their better work.

EW: I think that's a fair assumption. The quilts that you have given to your friends and family, how do they use their quilts?

BM: They've been hanging them on the wall. I just got onto my niece. I gave her one I called Shamrocks in the Snow. It's green and cream. It's an Irish Chain. Oh, gosh, this was when she got married fifteen years ago. She lives in Kansas, and she was saying it was hanging on the wall. I said, 'But it's a bed quilt. Use it.'

EW: And so, it surprised you that she would hang it on the wall?

BM: Yes. But then it made me feel proud, too, that she liked it that much.

EW: What do you think the biggest challenge is for quiltmakers today?

BM: Well, the biggest challenge. Hmmm. The cost of the fabric if you don't have a stash. That's one challenge. There are so many opportunities out there for quilters starting now that weren't there when I started quilting. There are so many clubs and guilds and too many magazines. Too many magazines. And then there are these people, the professional quilters out there. The biggest challenge, maybe, is to not buy into this professional quilting thing and think that because yours is not up to professional quality they're of no consequence. Because even the lesser ones, I've seen some awfully beautiful ones that the workmanship could have been better but they're still beautiful.

EW: They are certainly important to that quilter.

BM: I guess just don't be too much of a perfectionist. Don't be sloppy, but don't be too much of a perfectionist.

EW: That's a really good point. We have reached the end of our interview questions. Is there anything that you would like to add?

BM: Well, this new wave of painting fabric and then quilting it. These people do terrific, terrific work. But I keep thinking that to me it must be the same feeling as the purist hand quilters got when Caryl Fallert won with her machine quilting.

EW: There's a transition involved, isn't there?

BM: Quilting is tending too much into the realm of fine arts, maybe, is what I'm thinking.

EW: Maybe you don't think that should be?

BM: I'm conflicted about it. Yes, I like it and no, I'm not sure. I'm not sure. But I just like quilting and I love to go to the shows and see the pretty things. Beautiful show at Marshall, Michigan, was that a couple of weeks ago?

EW: Well, I thank you very much for coming all this way--

BM: Well you're welcome.

EW: --to be interviewed and we appreciate that very much. This concludes our interview and the time is now 11:00 a.m.


“Barbara Miller,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024,