Beth Payne-Howard




Beth Payne-Howard




Beth Payne-Howard


Eleanor Wilkinson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Battle Creek, Michigan


Eleanor Wilkinson


Eleanor Wilkinson (EW): This 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 Beth Payne-Howard at the Westlake Presbyterian Church in Battle Creek, Michigan. Today is March 25, 2011, and the time is 10:32 a.m. Let's begin by talking about the quilt that you brought today. Does this have a special meaning for you?

Beth Payne-Howard (BPH): Very special meaning. My mother made a quilt like it, just the top and my dad was transferred to Chicago [Illinois.] and they went back and forth from Battle Creek to there and the house was unheated, an old farmhouse, and mice got into it and chewed holes in it. I wanted to copy it and she had the pattern. It was from the twenties and so I got the pattern, and I made the quilt. I used different colors. That's why I made it, because it was special because my mom had done it.

EW: Ah, yes, and what did you do with her top then?

BPH: She kept it and I think that it was just destroyed in time.

EW: And that's why you chose to bring it today?

BPH: Yeah. That's my special quilt.

EW: How do you use this quilt?

BPH: I use it for demonstrations and to show people and to look at and I sleep under it once in a while, to get it out. But that's what I use it for.

EW: What are your plans for this quilt?

BPH: Well, I hope to--I told my husband to dig a very big hole. I want to take it with me. [both laugh.] I don't know of anyone in the family. My daughter doesn't quilt, and I don't know of anyone that I would pass it on to.

EW: Oh, goodness.

BPH: Somebody's going to have to have it. I don't know who.

EW: Somebody will. What do you think someone viewing this quilt would think of you?

BPH: Well, they probably would think I had a lot of patience. My mother's name was Patience Mary. She went by Mary.

EW: Let's talk about your interest in quilt making. At what age did you start quilt making?

BPH: I was married, and the children were grown and gone by the time I started quilt making. I had done other projects. I had sewn clothes for myself in high school and I had done needlework and embroidery things.

EW: But you were married before you made your first quilt?

BPH: Yes, I was.

EW: And from whom did you learn to quilt?

BPH: Mostly self-taught. Television, some of the things, Georgia Bonesteel and some of the others. I had their books and read books but mostly was self-taught.

EW: How many hours a week do you think you quilt on average?

BPH: More than I do of cooking and cleaning. It's hard to tell because even when we go on vacation, I take a sewing machine with me with pieces. I quilt when he talks to his people in his business. I quilt almost every day some.

EW: A few hours?

BPH: Yes, a few hours. And sometimes if I have a project, it will be more than a few hours.

EW: What is your first quilt memory?

BPH: The first one I made was when Women's Day [Magazine.] came out with a quilt on the cover. It was an orange and brown Log Cabin. It had the instructions inside and that was the first actual quilt that I made.

EW: And did you have any experience with quilts before that or had you seen any of your mother's quilts?

BPH: I'd seen my mother's quilts and seen her working on them.

EW: As a child?

BPH: As a child. When I was in junior high, I took sewing, and I made a full-length corduroy housecoat, and my teacher was very proud of me. [both laugh.] The others were sewing towels. So, I've always done needlework. We were raised in the country alone, my brother and I and mom. So, we had to entertain ourselves in the summertime because we didn't have kids to play with. So, I naturally went to what my mother did which was needlework.

EW: And besides your mother were there any other quiltmakers in your family?

BPH: No.

EW: Did your mother make a lot of quilts?

BPH: Not a lot. It was a depression, and she couldn't afford all of the supplies, but she did some for her girlfriends who were quilters.

EW: How does quilt making impact your family?

BPH: I've been the only quilter and my husband's brother married a gal and I got acquainted with her in Florida and she has a sister who's a quilter and so she and I have kind of gotten together. I've been to her meetings down there and she comes here in summertime to my meetings. I've made friends.

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

BPH: I know there was one quilt that I made that I did a lot of crying while I was making it. It must have been when my mother died.

EW: The memory of her? And on the other side of this coin, have you ever had an amusing experience connected with quilt making?

BPH: Oh, something amusing. Well, sometimes people would want to buy a quilt, but they'd only want to give me five dollars or something. [both laugh.] I always found that very amusing.

EW: Might as well be amused at that. What is it you find pleasing about quilt making?

BPH: I escape. There's no problems. If I have a problem, I can take it out and redo it. It's soothing and it satisfies my need to make things. I've tried to make music and I can't. I took piano lessons, and I didn't do very well, at all at that. This is something that I can do well and that I enjoy doing.

EW: Is there any part of quilt making that you do not enjoy?

BPH: I don't like redoing things, but I've made myself do it and after I do it, if I make a mistake, correct it. Then I feel good about it.

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

BPH: I belong to the quilt guild. We have a group that meets here. [at the church.] I have been to a meeting in Florida with this quilting friend of mine. I helped organize the first quilt meeting. [in Battle Creek.]

EW: The Cal-Co Quilters' Guild of Battle Creek, Michigan?

BPH: I named it Cal-Co.

EW: You named it? Perfect. Very good. I've always thought that was a clever name. And when was that?

BPH: We started the guild in November of 1982. The first meeting was November 8, 1982. We met in Jane Sperry's house. She was our first president. She left the town. We met at her house, and there was nine there, and we decided what we were going to do, and we had a second meeting. Each put in five dollars. Then we had a second meeting, and each put in five dollars again. We rented the basement out in Urbandale. [Michigan.] It was a savings and loan. We rented the basement. If you haven't got a copy of that, I'll get you a copy of the story. I have written the story.

EW: Oh, I'd love to have it.

BPH: We had a meeting, and it was a rainy, cold, January or November, and the women started coming. We had one paper and one pencil, and they began signing in and they were stacked up on the stairs waiting to get down to sign in.

EW: Oh, my goodness.

BPH: And we found another piece of paper and another pencil, and we had eighty-some women the first night.

EW: That's amazing.

BPH: And we had no idea there were that many quilters around. There was some women to start with. There was some women that got together at their home and they got some quilts. They weren't any of us, here. And they had a show in the library, and they put a paper out and said if you were interested in a guild, sign the paper. And so that's how we got the six of us to get together.

EW: Oh, that's how the six of you got together. And then did you advertise that you were going to meet?

BPH: We advertised in the Shopper and other places and that first meeting had eighty-nine women. And when we got there the one lady was going to do the coffee, the big coffee urn and there was no hose, so she filled the coffee pot one cup of water at a time. And it just grew from there. We had a lot of different homes that we stayed different places and had different kinds of meetings and then finally we've gone several places and now we're here. The guild has almost 200 members. They don't all come at the same time.

EW: Right. I think there are that many. Let's talk about technology. Are there any advances in technology that have influenced your work?

BPH: Yes, of course. I started out doing lap quilting. My quilt is all done in pieces and then put together. It's Georgia Bonesteel's method. Oh, there are so many things. I remember the first meeting we had Jane Sperry had a rotary cutter. We'd never seen one before. Now we just think there's all kinds of cutters but that was the first one that I had seen. The sewing machines do so much more than they did before. I had just a little old Singer machine. Now I've got a Pfaff. The fabrics have gotten to be a lot better, too. The dyes are more permanent. There's quite a few different things. I went and had my hair done yesterday and the little gal was telling about how she was just starting quilting. She says, 'I use those forms that I draw around' and I said, 'Those are called templates and she said, 'Oh, yeah, templates. I've learned something new.' I pass on quilting. But there are so many different things, so many different tools that we use now that we didn't have.

EW: Have they changed anything in the way that you accomplish your quilting?

BPH: I think it makes it easier. The rotary cutters--

EW: Have they affected the type of things that you do?

BPH: I don't think so. I'm pretty much stuck in the thirties and I like that kind of thing.

EW: Do you look especially for the types of materials that we might have used in the thirties, types of fabrics?

BPH: I go to pastels. I sort of know that those are what I was used to as a kid. I do other things, too, but I don't care for the dark colors. Very seldom do I ever make anything in the dark colors.

EW: Leaning toward calicos?

BPH: Calicos and pastels.

EW: What is your favorite technique?

BPH: Oh, golly. I don't do machine quilting. I love sitting with a needle and thread. I'd love to read but it puts me to sleep so I get CD's. When I went to vacation last time, I took a big bag of eleven or twelve CD's. Played those while I quilted, cut and ironed.

EW: So, you do hand piecing and hand appliqué?

BPH: Hand appliqué. The piecing I do on the machine if it's straight.

EW: You do a lot of appliqué, do you?

BPH: Sometimes. The quilt I brought has got quite a bit of appliqué in it. I did a little child's plaything. You do the building blocks, and you do two of each and then you put them on there and then they're to pick out, 'Where's the horse and where's the dog"' A game. And so, there's appliqué in that.

EW: Let's talk about the place where you do your creations. Do you have a studio or a quilting room?

BPH: I have a basement. I can leave my mess. Half of the basement is my workshop.

EW: And you have all of your equipment down there?

BPH: Yes. If the floors get kind of cold, then I can bring handwork upstairs.

EW: And do you quilt in the evening upstairs?

BPH: Sometimes, yes.

EW: Do you have a design wall?

BPH: No, I have hung things up, but it's barn siding. My son fixed the basement up and its barn siding and I can pin into that. I have done that.

EW: And when you are constructing a quilt do you ever lay the blocks out to see if you like the arrangement?

BPH: Yes.

EW: Do you do that on the barn siding?

BPH: I usually do it on the floor. I have carpeting on there.

EW: How do you balance your time?

BPH: I was married for forty years to a man who thought if he needed to cover the bed you should go buy a blanket. He passed away and I was alone for twelve years and now I'm married to a wonderful man, for ten years. And he is pushing me all the time to do more and more quilting. He's very good about it. He thinks it's great. We were in Florida this last time and I did not take a rotary cutter or a board to cut on. The pieces I hadn't been very careful about cutting them out and they weren't right. And he drove nine miles to a Jo-Ann's shop so I could buy a little board and a cutter. And he suggested that he do it.

EW: What a nice guy.

BPH: He's a wonderful man.

EW: Yes. What do you think makes a great quilt?

BPH: If it talks to you. If it says something. If you feel something when you look at it. If it makes somebody wonder, how did they do that, or it just might remind me of some happy time. [gestures on tabletop.] I think that does it.

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

BPH: It has to talk to you. It has to bring a feeling to you, I think.

EW: Does the way it's constructed or designed make any difference? Or is it just the way it speaks to you?

BPH: I think it's the way it's constructed, the way it goes together, the way the colors blend or contrast.

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

BPH: Something that's done very well and is a little unusual. My mother did a Baltimore Album quilt. She got the top done and she didn't like it. It was too gaudy. It was too bright. She finally did put it together and she just took the bottom and just sewed it with the machine instead of putting a binding on it. I have it and every time I look at it, I think I should put a binding on it, but that's what she did. It's a beautiful piece of work, but she just didn't like it. It was too bright and colorful.

EW: She didn't want to think about it anymore?

BPH: Nope. She had had it.

EW: And your mother cut templates, used a lot of templates in what she did? Did she?

BPH: At that time, I was raising two children and I don't remember exactly how she did things. I don't know what she used.

EW: What were these scrapbooks that she made?

BPH: She would cut out any kind of a magazine that had stories about quilting, instructions and then the batts used to have a band on it that had a pattern on the inside. She folded those up, punched holes in them and put them in there. I still have them.

EW: She saved those?

BPH: Yes. She used those.

EW: Are there any artists that have influenced you?

BPH: No, I can't think of any.

EW: What do you think makes a great quiltmaker?

BPH: You've got to have patience and if you have trouble go back to it later, straighten it out later. I think that makes a big difference.

EW: Do you think it helps to take a break sometimes?

BPH: Oh, yeah. Sometimes put a quilt up for a while. And then go back to it.

EW: Whose works are you drawn to?

BPH: You mean a quilter? I go to a quilt show and a lot of different kinds of things. I've followed Georgia Bonesteel. I'm trying to think of any other quilters that--

EW: When you go to a quilt show, what is it that catches your eye?

BPH: Usually the color, or different changes. I went to a show and instead of doing the traditional thing like Redwork, they had done bluework and I had just never thought about that before. I thought that was fascinating. Something different draws my attention.

EW: Just a change in one part of the plan, or something like that?

BPH: Yes. They use different colors in something or other. That is usually some other color.

EW: How do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting?

BPH: I'm very much against it. I'm sorry. I like hand quilting.

EW: You like hand quilting.

BPH: I figure that if I want a mattress pad, I'll get a mattress pad. I don't want a machine quilted quilt. Sorry about that.

EW: Well, you're entitled to your opinion. And you're not alone. Why is quilt making important to your life?

BPH: It soothes me when I'm upset. It makes me happy when I'm sad. I make something. I can cook a meal and we eat it and it's gone, but I make a quilt and it's there. It's creative. It just makes me happy.

EW: In what ways do your quilts reflect your community?

BPH: Hmmm. Well, I take them out and show them. We go to shows and people seem to like looking at them. So often it will start ideas for starting classes for things. If you do a monument and make a quilt of it, then it makes it permanent.

EW: Have you done a lot of teaching?

BPH: Quite a bit. I started out teaching at Valentine Center. After my first husband died, I was completely alone. I'd been married for forty years, and the two children were grown and gone. And I didn't know what to do with myself. I was in deep grief, and I went to a seminar, and they said, 'You've got to do it. You've got to get out and do something. You can't just sit home.' So I began looking at what they were doing at the Valentine Center and they were having an exercise class and I went down and took that and then I began teaching some crafts and some quilting and a lady came in teaching belly dancing and I thought, 'Well, hmm, that's interesting,' so I began teaching her how to quilt and she taught me how to belly dance and then it opened up the world to me. But I had to push myself. It was difficult. I'd been married for forty years. I'd never been away from my dad's home, or my own home and it was a great relief to get out. And I taught at KCC [Kellogg's Community College in Battle Creek, Michigan.] and I taught Lap Quilting in the high school.

EW: So, you taught that technique? And have you ever taught formal classes to the guild?

BPH: Yeah, in fact I did the guild with my miniatures. I showed them my miniatures and I have taught. We've gone to camp and taught.

EW: I've seen a lot of your miniatures; the hexagon quilts and I remember one time that you showed us how you fussy cut little individual shapes inside the hexagon and you held it up and showed us the cheesecloth.

BPH: Yeah, it looks like a moth-eaten rag.

EW: What do you think about the importance in American life?

BPH: I think they tell history. They tell what things were like in certain times and areas and I think they're very important. I think they have come more into being important. It used to be just women's work and it was put down. It's a great thing for anybody that's nervous. It teaches you patience.

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

BPH: We definitely would tell what history was by looking at them. The women that went across the desert and they had their quilts. And the Amish ladies. We have quite a few Amish around in this area. I dearly love the people. My husband is doing business with a little man now. He's not even as tall as I am. He's just adorable. We went to their house. I'd never met her before and she took me in and we visited, and she went upstairs and got a quilt and showed me and this completely different ethnic lady was a quilter.

EW: How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future? Or do you think quilts should be preserved?

BPH: They should be, and they have places where they have, I've seen them on television, would be CBC, where they have big, like a net and they lay the quilts out and put them in for storage and control the moisture, the humidity.

EW: In museums where they store textiles?

BPH: Yes. It would be wonderful to preserve some of them, because they will wear out.

EW: And how would you decide which ones should be preserved?

BPH: I think it would be the special ones that you can look at and know that they've had a lot of time to make them and they're special and preserve some of the fabrics.

EW: What has happened to some of the quilts that you have made? Or those of your friends and family, that you know about?

PBH: Well, I have a problem letting go. These are like my little children. If I'm starting out to make a quilt and I'm going to make it for somebody, I can give it to them. But I have over a hundred quilts in my house. [conversation in next room.] I just don't want to part with. I don't know what's going to happen to them.

EW: You could put on a show all by yourself.

PBH: Yes, I very well could. If I make a quilt for a certain person then I can give it to them but, like this quilt I brought today, I could not give to anybody except maybe my daughter. She's not a quilter, not interested in it.

EW: Maybe she'll be interested because you made it.

BPH: Well, I don't know. She tried quilting. She doesn't knit. She has done counted cross-stitch. She does a beautiful job. I have a mouse that she did. I asked her one time, 'Do you use the quilt that I made you?' and she said, 'No I've got it packed away up in the attic. We've got single beds now.' So, she doesn't use it.

EW: Oh, it's the wrong size.

BPH: So, I don't know. She didn't seem to care much about quilts and so I haven't bothered to make her. I'd be glad to make her a set of twin quilts.

EW: But you don't know whether she would appreciate that.

BPH: They are very different persons. She is agoraphobic. She very seldom leaves the house and when she does it's only with her husband and usually late at night, she'll go to the grocery store with him so that she doesn't have to see people.

EW: You know, that's a shame because quilters seem to go toward a community of quilters.

BPH: Yes, because we quilt alone. It's a lonesome thing. We just got acquainted with my husband's brother's sister-in-law. He has a sister, there are four of those girls and one of them is a quilter and, I'll take it back, Mary lives in California so two of the sisters do quilt. And so, I got acquainted with Betty and so when she comes up to Michigan to her Ceresco [Michigan.] house in the summertime, I bring her to the meeting here, so she gets to meet people and see people.

EW: It's a good thing to get together with other quilters.

BPH: Yes, oh yeah.

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

BPH: Well, right now it's the price of the fabric. It's just gone out of sight. And for seniors that are on a fixed income, it bugs us. The fabrics have gotten better and better. I remember the 36" wide fabric we used to get at J.C. Penny's upstairs.

EW: We've reached the end of those questions we were assigned. Is there anything that you would especially like to talk about?

BPH: I just appreciate so much that you're doing something about preserving our heritage and our art.

EW: Thank you very much. We appreciate, so much, you're taking the time to do this interview with us.

BPH: I enjoyed it.

EW: It's a special thing and it was very, very interesting. This concludes our interview for today and the time is now 11:23 a.m.


“Beth Payne-Howard,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed September 29, 2023,