Elaine Mitchell




Elaine Mitchell




Elaine Mitchell


Carolyn Kolzow

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Sandra Crane


McMinnville, Oregon


Perri Parker


Carolyn Kolzow (CK): This is Carolyn Kolzow and I'm conducting a Quilters’ S.O.S.- Save Our Stories interview with Elaine Mitchell. Elaine is in McMinnville, Oregon, and I am in Beaverton, Oregon. We're conducting this interview by telephone. Today's date is June the 6th, 2010. It's now 7 p.m. We are doing this interview through the American Heritage Committee of the Oregon State Society, Daughters of the American Revolution. Elaine is a member of Yamhill Chapter. Elaine, thank you so much for taking the time this evening to talk with me. Tell me about your Dresden quilt that you brought for the interview. Can you describe it for us?

Elaine Mitchell (EM): Do you want me to do that first?

CK: Yes, if you would.

EM: My mother died in 1987, and she had put together-- had cut a bunch of quilt pieces for this quilt, and they were not done. After her funeral my sister and I went through the boxes and stuff in the closet, and she took one box, and I took another. This is one I took that maybe I can remember my mother by. The fabric in this quilt I recognized as some of the dresses and blouses that mother had made when I was a young girl. This would have been in the late 40's and 50's. Mother saved scraps. She was a great saver for that. Some of the pieces I recognized were shirts that she had made for my brothers. So that's why it was important for me to keep this as a memory of my mother. She had also cut the big pink pieces. There are four of those in each big circle. I assembled the pieces probably ten years or so after she had been gone. Then I worked on it a little bit at a time here and there. Finally, I put it together and kept it in my cedar chest for another ten years and finally got around to quilting it. I have put a label on the back that this will go to my daughter, Sharon, who lives here close to me. It will be from her grandmother, and so that's a heritage, an heirloom really. The quilt has a bright green back and was put together, if recall, with green in the sashing, with Stepping Stones. So it's a real special quilt to me.

CK: Now you must have been already into quilting at the time you went off on this big project. Tell me about your beginning quilting.

EM: Well, yes, I'd been into quilting before. I have a real pioneer heritage of quilting. I can remember being about ten, it wouldn't have been much later than that, because I was at my grandmother's home in Bunkerville, Nevada, and they were quilting a quilt, Grandma and my mother and three or four aunts around this quilt. I was under the quilt with a couple of cousins, and we were playing. I don't remember what. Probably something with dolls and Grandma said to me, ‘Elaine, get up here you're too old to be playing under a quilt. Now you pull up a chair right by me, and I'm going to show you how this is done.’ And that seems like a real early age, but I know it was about then because we moved to Idaho when I was eleven. And so I did learn some basic stitches although they were pretty big and uneven and awkward, but I took a liking to it. I just liked it. Then after we moved to Idaho, it was a lot colder country than southern Nevada down by Las Vegas, and so my mother then began making quilts because we needed them to keep warm in the winter. Because we were a poor family, mother would use what wearable scraps she could cut up from my father's Sunday suit. We would wash them and turn them. We would always use the back side for the wool quilts we made, as we needed those for sleeping in an unheated bedroom. She would also cut, like the tail, of daddy's flannel work shirts, that still had some wear in them and so there were long stripes that we used along with the grey and the browns that were put in the serviceable warm wool quilts, and then she began doing some simple patterns like Around the World, here again with scraps. I don't recall in all those years that she ever bought a single piece of fabric for the top of the quilt but used what she had and did a lot of Nine Patches, dozens of those, and then she thought of the Single Bar patterns. I think they were easy to put together and easy to quilt and sometimes we tied them and back in those days mother always used yarn although now I use a heavy crochet thread for tying rather than the yarn. I think it's not as bulky. It doesn't tear the fabric to go through it, and it's stronger. Also, sometimes she would use the old flannel sheets that we would have a lot on our beds back in those days back when it was cold. Some of those got pretty threadbare and thin, and so we would put that in the middle of a quilt. Sometimes in addition to tying just a square knot she also did another stitch that I have done dozens of quilts on and she called it the crow’s foot. It's very similar to a lazy daisy embroidery stitch, but it's about 3 1/2 or 4 inches long, and it doesn't detract from the pattern of the quilt like tied yarn or thread does on the top and yet it's secure. I like using that.

CK: Tell me about that a little bit more, I didn't quite--I'm not quite visualizing it.

EM: It takes a five inch doll needle. I use crochet thread. I need to roll out the thread the complete length of the quilt I'm working on because there is no stopping or starting in between. You have to be a little careful with that so that the thread doesn't knot or twist.

CK: Okay.

EM: I found that after I thread the needle I will run it through a dryer sheet and there is something about that dryer sheet that helps smooth out the fibers on the thread so it doesn't knot or get tangled. If I don't do that I'm sure to get a knot, and then it's difficult to get out. Any way the needle goes between the top and the bottom layer and through the batting. It comes up and you do the stitch.

CK: Very interesting.

EM: Look at an embroidery book, and then you'll see. I've also seen it where they just do a double stitch on top and so all that shows that way is just one stitch. This crow foot, that my mother calls it, I've never seen it called by anybody else that name. It was just my mother's label for it. It makes a little ‘v' on the top that you see but on the back of the quilt. You only see one thread, the one stitch.

CK: Interesting. You say you are still using that technique?

EM: I don't do it on everything, but I do it a lot. For me it doesn't take much longer than to just tie. I don't like to see fuzzies on top of the quilt.

CK: Good for you.

EM: So, anyway, to go back a little bit, when I was first married, my grandma, the one in Bunkerville, [Nevada.] that got me started in quilting, made me two quilts. One was a beautiful Double Wedding Ring that I still have and cherish. Although I've put it up and haven't used it in the last fifteen years because it's getting worn around the edges. The fabric is from 1940's and 50's. She also made me a big one, a Pineapple design, if you’re familiar with that one. It was done in bright hot pink and orange and green, and she put it together on flour sacks, which is what she had, back in those days. That's what they used. Those wheat flour sacks.

EM: So, the brand on the flour, Turkey Red Band, didn't come out with all the bleaching built in there, and I hated that quilt. [EM and CK both laugh.]

EM: And I was so embarrassed that I used it as a mattress pad. Isn't that terrible?

CK: Oh, I can't believe it.

EM: I can't either. And about ten years ago I went to a quilt show and there was a woman from Oklahoma I think she was, talking about this and telling about these flour sacks. That quilt would be worth two or three thousand dollars at auction.

CK: Oh my goodness.

EM: Foolish girl that I was.

CK: Some things you just don't know.

EM: And then I began making quilts when I had a family. I have four children and of course I made a quilt for each one of them when they were born. Some of them were embroidery nursery blocks and others were just designs put together and those were hand quilted, and of course I also made tie blankies, you know, for cuddle quilts and throw quilts and that kind of thing. Then I made quilts when my daughters were in their teenage years. They wanted a quilt and my mother had put together a big Star of Bethlehem for one of them, so we proceeded to hand quilt that to show my daughters how to hold the needle and how to quilt that when they were in high school and college, so they each had two or three quilts. Then I noticed on the questionnaire. It says, ‘Do you make wearable art?’ The answer to that is, ‘No’. I didn't start out to have anything at an art show or jackets or coats or shirts, whatever. I was only interested, to begin with, with quilts as a means of keeping warm when you were cold and you needed a cover.

CK: I see.

EM: So, along with my mother and my grandma what little I had learned from her before we moved from there, I learned some of the basics. I have belonged to some quilt guilds. I picked up hints from those guilds whatever I could. A lot of pattern ideas, and of course there are thousands on the Internet now, so it is easy to find a lot of patterns.

CK Do you have other quilters in your family? You say your daughters learned to quilt?

EM: Yes, my daughters learned to quilt. Although the one daughter that lives close to me here has a job, and is too busy to quilt, although she will help me to roll a quilt. She does know how, and she's helped, but she's not into it like I am because she's busy. I don't teach quilting other than teaching somebody what to do, how to do it, how to get the blocks together, and how to make the corners come out perfect and those kinds of things. I've never worked in a quilt shop. I've done it on my own. I've never won an award. I've never entered anything. My quilts have been for giveaways, a lot of gifts.

CK: Tell me about some of the ones that you have given away.

EM: Well, I tried to make a list the other night. [EM and CK laugh.] Years ago, about ten years ago one of my granddaughters came here, and I was working on a quilt and she said, ‘Grandmother, how many quilts have you made?’ I said, ‘Oh, I don't know, I've never kept track.’ She said. ‘That would be interesting. I'm going to get a notebook here, and I'm going to start writing down, so we'll start with families.’ I started going through each of my children by families, and Roger's family had eighteen quilts, Alan's family had 17, and Karma's family had 19, and Sharon's family only had five.

CK: Oh my.

EM: But anyway so I started adding those up. Then I went to friends, nieces and nephews and wedding gifts probably 20 or 30 of those. I have extended family. The last count was 40 and those were nieces and nephews. In the year 2001, I was heavily involved in a humanitarian aid project, quilts for third world countries through my church. I still had access to fabric from a drapery shop, this would be their extra fabric that was going into a dumpster. One of my Mennonite friends asked if I'd like some. These were on big rolls and so it was a matter of making them into comforters, so they did have to be pieced together, and then the back of them and we bought the batting. Here in my home I had once a week every Tuesday morning two quilts in my front room and in my dining room. We took the table out, and we often put a smaller quilt where you sit. Then in the front room we moved the furniture out and put the full sized quilts out. In that one year we did 107. Technically you would say they were a comforter, but they were tied.

CK: Oh my.

EM: Some of them were pieced in 6 inch squares and 9 inch squares depending on the fabric that was just given to me and they went to a humanitarian aid center in Portland, [Oregon.]. Then they were shipped. They had trucks that came up from Salt Lake City, [Utah.]. This was with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I had that calling for a couple of years with humanitarian aid. That one year I kept track of 107, and then the second year I didn't even keep track.

CK: Oh my.

EM: I have done quilts for family, and neighbors, and Salvation Army. I've given a lot to DAR Service for Veteran's hospital here in Portland, [Oregon.]. Those are smaller quilts obviously, you know, for the single bed--

CK: Yes.

EM: --covers, and so I've done several of those. When the bank here at Christmas time has a drive for blankets, I usually take in two or three home made quilts, either patched, Nine Patched. For Children Services last year I only did 10 for them, but I have done as many as 35 or 40 in a year.

CK: Oh my.

EM: So, I’m somewhere around 400 or more, I quit counting, Carolyn.

CK: Oh, you are amazing.

EM: I figure these have never won a prize, I've never exhibited them in a fair. I am not after a prize. The thing I have that you wanted me to tell about, is this book that my granddaughter--

CK: Right, I was going to say did you take pictures of those that went to your family?

EM: No, but others did. I was really a surprised the day before Mother's Day. I went to the mailbox and there was this package from Texas. It had this book that my granddaughter had had printed. Beautifully illustrated, well not illustrated, she does scrap booking. It was a beautifully finished, high quality paper, book. She had contacted her cousins and her siblings and some people that she knew that I had made quilts for and asked if they would send a picture of the quilt, because I never take a picture of the quilt. She had them write a few sentences about the quilt, and it's just precious. She has seventy some pictures in there of the quilts of the family.

CK: Oh my goodness.

EM: And several stories that they have written about. Just precious.

CK: What a treasure.

EM: And she put on the title of the book, “Volume One”. There were some that didn't respond, but that has been a real joy to me. Then every other year my family and my siblings, have our Leavitt family reunion. They always have an auction that helps pay the cost of the reunion, and all the food, and the campground, and the costs or whatever, so they have this auction. I do quilts for that. I guess it's been going on about, oh, 12, 14 years, maybe.

CK: So every year you have one quilt for a family reunion?

EM: I do several--at least 6 or 8.

EM: We've had them in Arizona, Idaho, and Utah. When it was my turn to host it, it was in Lebanon, [Oregon.]. This year coming up it will be in central Utah, in a campground, and it's usually a two to three day thing. It's a fund raiser. It just tickles me to pieces to see my nieces and nephews bid on these quilts. [EM and CK laugh.] ‘Oh. I don't have one of Aunt Elaine's quilts, I’ll have to pay whatever it takes to get one.’

CK: Oh, I love it!

EM: So, usually with my quilts it brings 500 or 600 dollars for five or six or more quilts. They're not all big. Some are baby quilts, some are queen size. Well, I just get a kick out of doing it. One of my friends at the Senior Center said, ‘Elaine, I don't think you're happy unless everybody you love has one of your quilts.’ And I haven't thought about that really that way, but it's just about true. It just thrills me to no end to go though to visit a grandson, or a granddaughter and see three or four or five quilts on the kid’s beds that I had long forgotten about them.

CK: Beautiful.

EM: So that's my interest in quilting. Although I've tried to make some really nice ones, that I have done. I have a granddaughter getting married next week and she has a Star of Bethlehem, all packed and ready to go. Then I have a grandson getting married in July, and I just finished his Woven Star and it's beautiful.

CK: Now do you put a label on it? That you've done it?

EM: Pardon?

CK: Do you put your name on it? Somewhere? Do you sign your quilts?

EM: Oh yes, and if I don't then they always remind me, and I always thank them. I should have been taking pictures of them all these years, but haven't always have a camera handy that worked or had film in it, so I didn't. I wasn't after keeping a record when I started doing this. I was just doing this for loved ones.

CK: Well, it sounds to me it could be “Volume Two” of your picture book. It sounds to me if your daughters could give you, “Volume Two”.

EM: Yes. [EM and CK both laugh.] Yes, I think she will, I think she will,

CK: Wow.

EM: Anyway I don't know if there is anything else that--

CK: Tell me about your quilting. Is there anything special about doing it that you find pleasing? Makes you feel good. Have you ever used quilting to get through a difficult time?

EM: Oh, it's a great way for me to relax. Just a great way. Luckily, I have a front room big enough to put it up in. I have a quilt up, not all the time, but frequently.

CK: Tell me about, what projects do you have going right now?

EM: Right now? Well, right now I'm working on putting a fabric quilt together for a nephew that lives up near Yakima. When I was making this list the other day, I realized, ‘Oh, I don't think I've given John a quilt.’ I'm trying to get this one done before the July wedding I have. I've got about six in various stages, Carolyn. I have some three-inch blocks but also two and half boxes of blocks cut that I have done in the Nine Patch and the alternating block with a red heart, and I appliqué that on, and quilt around them with the Nine Patch. I've done those with just red with red centers. I've done them with coordinated colors, and I've done them with any mixture of colors for nieces and great nieces that don't have a grandma. I've got a couple of boxes of those going.

CK: Do you have one room where you keep your quilting?

EM: Well, I have two sewing machines and all the boxes and shelves of fabric in one room and the ironing board. Then of course when I put the quilt up, I have to go in the front room. So, if people come to visit me, I'm known as the quilt lady. [EM and CK laugh.] I think there is a quilt up often, not all the time. I'll take it down or get it out of the way if there is something special going on, but I do two or three a month.

CK: Do you have a design wall?

EM: Well, yes, I do, not as big as I want it. I do. I have a couple of big bulletin boards for this.

CK: Okay.

EM: You know my sewing room is not fancy enough to be a studio. It’s just having a sewing machine and an ironing board and shelves and cupboards and that's all you need, fabric and thread. [EM and CK laugh.]

CK: Is there anything about quilting that you do not enjoy? What is the least thing you like to do?

EM: Oh, I just enjoy all parts of quilting. I love putting patterns together. I've done a lot of various patterns. I usually--oh, let me back up here. For grandkids I usually give them a quilt when they turn eight, when they turn twelve, because they usually need a different size for a bigger bed. Then when they graduate from high school, they get a nice one for them to take to college. The twin size for dorm life, so I let them pick their pattern and the colors. I do buy fabric because I love fabric.

CK: I bet you do.

EM: As my mother didn't. Well, she did it in later life, but also, once people hear that you are into quilting, they say, ‘Oh, I've got some extra fabric and my mother's cleaned house and she's got two sacks of perfectly good material. Would you like to, have it?’ I've had a lot given to me, literally boxes. Brand-new, brand-new fabric. And some of it is in two- or three-yard pieces and others might be smaller. I might cut it into smaller blocks or in a moment of weakness I give them away. I can't keep all that somebody gives me just because they know I do it.

CK: That's true.

EM: So, is there anything else you want to ask?

CK: Well, how do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting?

EM: I wouldn't have one in my house.

CK: Why is that?

EM: I don't like the feel of it. I like a soft puffy quilt. I don't want a quilt that is hard and feels like a rug. That's just me, Carolyn, and I know that it's the going thing and people just rant and rave over it, that it's wonderful, but to me that's an art form that somebody's using. It's the modern thing to do. That's the way to go, but I do quilting as a tradition for my family. So, I'm not interested. If somebody gave me a hand quilt that was machine quilted, I would promptly give it away. I’ve tried sleeping under one when I've been to somebody else's home, I don't like the feel of them. I like the soft cuddly quilt and that's the kind that I like to make.

CK: Okay.

EM: So, that may sound strange. I think that maybe I'll delete all that from the interview.

CK: No. No. I've heard some people feel this way. You are not the only one. There are others like you.

EM: I don't like it at all. I don't like the fact that it's not all soft and puffy and cuddly. It doesn't say, ‘Wrap me in some love’. That is just me.

CK: Looking at the quilts you've done would you say that they reflect your community or the region in which you live?

EM: Oh, I don't know how to answer that. I don't know that they reflect the community as much as they reflect my history. They reflect who I am, and where I grew up, and my heritage. That carried on through my quilts because I do a lot of patterns that my mother did. I don't know that it reflects a definite community. It reflects more my history.

CK: Okay.

EM: And I don't know that they'd want to hear that.

CK: No, this is all about you. What do you think about the importance of quilts in American life?

EM: What do I think about the importance of quilts?

CK: In American life? Are they important?

EM: Oh yes. I just want to tell you another thing. My daughter lives in Germany. She has been there for 12 years, and she had some good friends there that wanted to come to the States. They did come over, and they saw the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and they came to visit me, so they had a place to stay and so on. I took the two of them to a handicraft shop. She went absolutely wild over the quilts that were there. She had never seen them. That's unheard of in Germany. They use a lot of fedadeker, which are down filled comforter type things, that are like huge pillowcases that are filled with down. They are wonderful in the winter, warm and cuddly and whatever, but she had never seen a quilt. So, I proceeded to tell her a little bit about quilting and about the settlement of America and how it started. I told her that they did that by putting pieces together to keep them warm with especially the westward movement on to Oregon. All of those quilts, and the early days clear through the thirteen colonies they had quilts. You know they made them because they needed them to keep warm.

CK: There was a reason.

EM: Well, I think that it's a part of American history that's vital, important, and I want to keep it alive. So doing that I do a lot of scrap quilts, some are prettier than others, but some are absolutely gorgeous with various patterns that I piece together.

CK: Oh.

EM: And so that's the enjoyment I get out of it is the fact that it's a part of our heritage as Americans that other countries don't have. I want to keep that alive and important.

CK: That's terrific. Well, I can see that the time is going along. Is there something you'd like to share that we haven't touched upon? Can you think of anything that you'd like to share?

EM: Not other than the fact that there's so many beautiful patterns available. Have you ever been to the Sisters [Oregon.] quilt show?

CK: No, I never have been.

EM: Anyway, there are quilt shows throughout America that are just beyond belief.

CK: Will you be going to the show this year?

EM: Probably not, I've been to some beauties. I've been to some real beauties. One year it was in Logan, Utah and they have a big festival of the American West there and they have a big quilt show. It's in the field house, not the auditorium, the big auditorium. They must have 200 or 300 quilts up. The Mennonite women do a lot of quilt shows, and I always take those in. Beautiful work and most of them are of course a range of patterns. If there's a hundred quilts there, there's a hundred different patterns and ways to do it. But there are all kinds of quilt shows going on and that's just fun for me.

CK: That's good. Well, it looks like our tape is about to run out. We're going to have to conclude our Quilters’ [S.O.S.]-Save Our Stories interview. It's 20 minutes of eight, and I want to thank you very much. Now don't hang up. I want to chat with you for just a minute after I turn off the machine.

EM: Okay

[Interview concludes.]


“Elaine Mitchell,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed November 30, 2023, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2231.