Barbara Mason




Barbara Mason




Barbara Mason


Estella Spates

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Battle Creek, Michigan


Eleanor Wilkinson


Estella Spates (ES): Good afternoon. I'm Estella Spates and this is Barbara Mason and I am interviewing her for Calhoun County Quilters Story, Save Your Quilt Story. We are at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan on May 16, at 2:43 p.m. Barbara, tell me about the quilt that you brought with you today.

Barbara Mason (BM): Well, I brought my Bible Quilt which is from a year-long class that I talked my friend, Estella, into attending. We met a group of people which we did not know from an ad in the newspaper for a quilting group. We journeyed out to a church and for a year we met once a month and each time we had a couple quilt blocks to complete, for each class. It was very enjoyable and we made friends that we would not have known otherwise.

ES: Does this quilt have any special meaning to you?

BM: Yes. My quilt was made all with scraps except one block. I broke down and bought some fabric. But I tried very hard to use fabric that I already had in my collection.

ES: Why did you choose this quilt as your interview quilt?

BM: Because it represents a lot of things to me. It represents the old story of using what you have and not buying everything new for your quilt. And, also, what quilting means to me that you meet different people from different walks of life, but you have this common interest. It just means a lot of different things to me.

ES: How do you use this quilt?

BM: I use it on my bed, when it was warm enough.

ES: What are your plans for this quilt?

BM: Well, usually I just store it. I'm trying to change quilts for every season. I've over-made quilts over the years so I have enough to change on my bed so I just use it in the springtime.

ES: Tell me about your interest in quilting.

BM: Well, it started because I loved to sew. Period. And, I'm a person that likes to learn new things. I may not always finish what I start but I love to learn new techniques and so I have this repertoire of things that I can bring out to people. [laughs.]

ES: When did you start quilting?

BM: Back in 1982 or '83. I was taking a class, actually in knitting, and I had found at that time panels were quite popular, and I met--I'm a social worker and at that time I was working with the elderly and one of the ladies I met on my caseload was making pillow panels. And she showed me one and I just loved it. I mean, I really loved it. I said, 'You know I'm going to learn how to do that.' I didn't know anyone that quilted. Besides, she gave me sort of the basics, you know, what you needed, the batting and the old sheet. She said at the back, because she said she was an old-time quilter. So that's what I did. It took me all summer to make that pillow panel. [laughs.] But I enjoyed it. While I was taking a class in knitting, I happened to mention to a couple of the ladies that were teaching the class that I was trying to quilt, and their little eyes lit up like lanterns. How did I know that they belonged to the local quilting guild? And they invited me to come and join the guild and told me where I could take quilt making lessons. That was the start of my vice in my life. So now I have quilting stuff all over my house and I'm always doing some kind of project. I may go from one to the other but eventually I try and get back and finish things.

ES: So, was it any particular person that taught you to quilt?

BM: I learned the basics from Lynn Evans at The Quiltery who was one of the members that started the Cal-Co Quilters' Guild.

ES: How many hours a week do you think you quilt?

BM: Oh, I don't know because I quilt in spurts. Like right now I'm on a quilting spurt and I probably put in about ten or twelve hours a week. But other times I may not quilt at all, but I watch the quilting shows. I don't know if that counts, putting little things in my brain. But I just don't keep track of it. It's like when I want to sew I sit down and quilt.

ES: Other than the things that you've already told me, what is your first quilt memory?

BM: I remember that we had quilts when I was a little girl, that my grandmother made. I have one, now, but it wasn't--my cousin just happened to mention that she had this quilt and she gave it to me. All those quilts that my grandmother had made disappeared. She was a fast quiltmaker, because she was making them to be used, not for putting in a show or anything like that. They were really scrap quilts. They were really scrap quilts.

ES: Are there other quiltmakers in your family?

BM: Not that I'm aware of. I found a quilt one time in a museum in Buxton, Ontario where my great-grandfather had donated money towards the quiltmakers and they had sewn his name into the quilt into one an old fashioned album quilt and I was quite touched to see that because, of course, I never met my great-grandfather. That's the only thing that every really connected me to him.

ES: Are there quiltmakers in your friends?

BM: Yes. I have a variety of friends that are quiltmakers and I've tried to turn them all into making quilts. My daughter calls it a cult. And she warns people about me. But I've had many friends that have turned into quiltmakers. I only have one that I haven't done that to and I'm working on her right now.

ES: Tell me about how quilts impact your family. You mentioned your daughter and how she feels about it. But tell me about are there other people in your family that quilts have impacted.

BM: Yes, my sons. I have quilts that I've made, although my one son has been waiting on his quilt, as my friend Estella would say, to graduation from college twice, getting his nursing license and getting married. I still have that binding to put on that quilt. But he'll get it someday. Maybe when he has a child.

ES: Tell me if you have ever used quilts to get through a difficult time?

BM: Yes, I used to have a very stressful job, in dealing with children who were abused and sometimes you take things so personally when you are involved with the kids and there is really not much you can do to the person that's abused them. Quilting was a good way to let go of my emotions and, at the time, I was doing more hand quilting and just sit and hand quilting to get that out of my mind.

ES: Tell me about an amusing experience that has occurred from your quilting.

BM: Well, I don't know. Well, one thing, people want to know how many sewing machines I have and I refuse to tell them because I might buy a sewing machine on an impulse, but I have a great need for it at that time. So that's my little secret that I keep. I've met one lady, Opal Allen, in a quilt store and she was showing this piece of fabric that she had, and I got her to come to guild and now she's just quilting away these days. And loves it.

ES: What do you find pleasing about quilting?

BM: That you can learn techniques, that it keeps your mind going and just keeps you open minded about different things. You know that you can still learn something new, like old dogs can learn new tricks.

ES: What do you enjoy most about quilting?

BM: Putting colors together and thinking of different ways to organize quilts.

ES: What groups do you belong to?

BM: I belong to the Cal-Co quilters, to the SOULS Quilt Circle, and I'm also a charter member of the Great Lakes African American Quilters. Although I'm not active with that group because they're in Detroit [Michigan.] and I live in Battle Creek, and in the winter it's too hard to get to the meetings, but I'm proud that there's a group going that just a few members started. It involves most of the states around the Great Lakes. I think Minnesota is the only one we are missing, that there's not someone that lives in a Great Lakes state who's a member of the guild.

ES: Are you active in the other two groups that you belong to? The Cal-Co quilters and your SOULS quilt circle?

BM: I have been very active in the Cal-Co quilters but at the moment I'm not as active. In SOULS I'm very active. I have a meeting, circle meeting, at my house every month. We have projects to do and those people just try to work me to death.

ES: Have advances in technology influenced your work? And if so, how?

BM: Yes. When I first started we were using cardboard templates and scissors. Now we have all this high-tech stuff and all those things that used to take forever to do can be done in minutes with the rotary cutter and the mat. Sometimes you still use templates, but it really makes a difference. The methods we are using are much easier now, even the machines are so much better for quilting than they used to be.

ES: What is your favorite technique? And your favorite fabric?

BM: Well, I mainly like good cotton. I don't have a favorite technique. Right now I'm into the binding, ending the binding because I discovered a way to do it that looks seamless, you can't tell where it stops. That's just my little thing at the moment. It might be something else tomorrow.

ES: Tell me about your sewing room, your studio that you've created.

BM: Well, I sort of have a studio downstairs where I have a sewing machine and a quilting frame and fabric and so forth. But it's taken over down there because I have another bedroom that has a cutting board and that kind of stuff in it. Then I also have a machine upstairs in my house where I do my main sewing. So on days that I don't feel like going downstairs I can sit up here and sew back.

ES: Well, how do you balance your time between quilting and other activities?

BM: Well, I don't know if I try to balance my time. I have community activities that I'm involved in and I show up at meetings and do whatever I'm supposed to do. I'm retired and I don't intend to work again and so I just do what pleases me with my time.

ES: Do you use a design wall? And, if so, in what way? How does that enhance your creative process? If not, how do you go about designing your quilts?

BM: Well, sometimes I use the back of an old table cloth that has flannel on it and throw my blocks up there, but mainly I lay them out on the floor or I have little drawings all over where I've drawn out what I might like to see for my quilts. But, I'm not that much of a designer. It's just whatever I feel like is how it's going to look.

ES: What do you think makes a great quilt?

BM: I think every quilt is a great quilt. Because you're making them with love and I don't think it matters whether everything is perfect and every point matches. I don't make quilts for quilt shows, to win prizes, or anything like that. I just think, you know, you make quilts for the love of it and for the love of the people that you give them to.

ES: To you, what makes a quilt artistically powerful?

BM: When they have symbols in it and they represent something to that maker. Like I've seen some quilts about children starving in Africa that were quite interesting. I like, oh, I can't think of her name, but she's from Michigan. Her dad was the chairperson of Chrysler and she makes such wonderful quilts that symbolize different areas of the world.

ES: What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection?

BM: My feeling is that we need quilts that were made at a different time and so, I think it's just basic quilts that people have made, so that people could go back and look at different times, like what was going on and what the quilts looked like at that time.

ES: What makes a great quilter or quiltmaker?

BM: I think someone who loves to quilt and does it, is not a chore to them. They're doing it for the love of quilting and it means something to them, whether they're a person who designs for a show, but it's really what they love to do rather than how much money they're going to get out of making this particular product.

ES: Is there any particular quiltmaker that you've grown to love and why?

BM: No, because I like a variety of different things. I couldn't say that there's one quiltmaker that I just think of above others. No.

ES: How do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting and what about the long-arm quilter quilting?

BM: Well. As someone who has used all three, I used to hand quilt. Hand quilting, you've got to really devote some time to and it's beautiful. It's what people used to have to do because they didn't have a sewing machine to sew it with. And I've noticed that there are quilts made in the 1890's where people had machines and they used them and I don't blame them. I like machine quilting. I'm always trying to find a new way to machine quilt and if I had a long-arm I would use it. I do have a small arm frame, but I see nothing wrong--and all the techniques are different and so your quilts look different, you know? And they're all beautiful in their own way.

ES: Well, why is quilting important in your life?

BM: Well, one thing, I like to feel fabrics. I like the texture and I like seeing things put together and it's just a fun thing to do. It's a fun hobby to have.

ES: In what way do your quilts reflect your community?

BM: I don't know. I guess I'm more of a traditional quilter. What you see in this area. So, I guess I will say this because I'm more of a traditional quilter, I mean, that I use traditional patterns. Sometimes I go out on a limb, but generally I'm using traditional patterns and so that's just sort of typical of quilters in this area. There are some art quilters but mainly most of us are traditional quilters.

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

BM: I think they have spanned the whole time, from people in stage coaches or going across the prairies in a wagon. They had quilts. I think they, you know we got to the fifties and people could buy quilts, but they still, it wasn't the same. And I think they are very important because I think every area, every span of time, you can find things that were quilts that people have made.

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

BM: Well, they sew. Women are able to express things in quilts, especially in the past that they weren't able to say out loud. I always think of Carrie Nation quilts about alcoholism. You know, in women's liberation, you know, they might have famous women on their quilts. I think that women have always used quilts to express themselves. The AIDS quilts are a prime example in this time, of quilts that are used to express the emotions of women that are quilters, as some non-quilters, but they still use that mode to express themselves--for the AIDS quilts.

ES: How do you think quilts can be used?

BM: They could be used in many, many ways. For beds and walls, table coverings, whatever, whatever your little heart desires. Pillows, chair backings, you know, clothing. There's many you can use your quilting techniques and abilities.

ES: How do you think that quilts should be preserved for the future? Or, do you think that they should be preserved for the future?

BM: Yes, I do. Yes, I do. And I think it's a way of passing on history. To me it was very precious when my cousin brought out my grandmother's quilt. And my grandmother had passed when I was eight years old and here I was 50-some years old and here's still her quilt, still remaining. That was very special to me. I just think it's a way of passing the history down in the art from one generation to another.

ES: Tell me about what has happened to some of the quilts that you have made. Ah, well that you've made or some of your friends have made, or family members have made.

BM: Some of my friends, now, have quilts in the Michigan State collection for the state quilters. A lot of my friends make their quilts and give them away and that's what I've been doing right now, is trying to give away quilts I've made to people that I want to have them. It feels good when you do something like and you see a person really enjoys getting something that you have quilted.

ES: What do you think is the thing that is the biggest challenge facing quiltmakers today?

BM: Not having enough time to make all the quilts that are running through their heads. We have access to too much information. Back in the day people had a few quilt patterns in a community and that's what they worked on. Now we have them from all over the world and the internet is teaming with quilt patterns and ideas. I think that's a real challenge to really cue in on one thing and do that as a quilter.

ES: Tell me about the last quilt project that you made.

BM: My last quilt project has been actually wearable art. It's a sweatshirt jacket that I'm presently putting the binding on. That I made in a class that my friend, Estella Spates, taught at our church, which is the Second Missionary Baptist Church in Battle Creek, Michigan. I am so pleased with my jacket, and I hope to have it finished in the next day or so.

ES: So are you planning on keeping that for yourself, or--

BM: Definitely, definitely.

ES: Do you have anything else that you would like to tell us about your quilting experiences?

BM: No, I think we've covered everything, but I do say it is one of the best hobbies that I've ever had. Well, I think sewing is one of the best hobbies I've ever had through my life. I started when I was twelve years old, and I will be seventy this year. And I am still sewing. And it has been something that's helped me throughout my whole life.

ES: Well, this is Estella Spates and I have been interviewing Barbara Mason on May 16, 2009, in her home. It is 2:06 p.m. (3:06 p.m.) Thank you, Barbara.

BM: Thank you, Estella, for the interview.


“Barbara Mason,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 18, 2024,