Estella Spates


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MI49016-009 Spates b.jpeg.JPG


Estella Spates


Estella Spates was interviewed as part of the South Central Michigan QSOS. She shares the design process of her "Three Dancers" quilt, her experience as an African American quiltmaker, and the importance of quilts in women's history.




Estella Spates


Pam Schultz

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Allie Aller


Battle Creek, Michigan


Pam Schultz (PS): I’m Pam Schultz. It’s about 12:35 and I’m here to interview Estella Spates. How are you, Estella?

Estella Spates (ES): I’m well, thank you.

PS: I’m Pam Schultz and I’m interviewing Estella Spates at her home in Battle Creek [Michigan.]. This interview is being conducted for South Central Michigan Quilters’ Save Our Stories project of the Alliance for American Quilts. It is February 12 [2010.] and it’s about 12:35. How are you today, Estella?

ES: I’m well, thank you.

PS: Tell me about the quilt you brought today.

ES: Okay, this quilt is called "Three Dancers". The center of the quilt is African women dancing. Actually that was a panel. The center of the quilt is a panel. The parts that I want to emphasize are the borders. I did a braided border on this quilt and I think it was fantastic. I enjoyed working on a braided border. It makes the quilt just stand out. And so, I found this border in a magazine and I really wanted to try it on something and this magazine had a picture of an animal. Well, I’m not animal friendly, so when I saw this panel I said, 'That’s just the thing.’ And so I did the braided border on this quilt and that’s what, to me, makes this quilt stand out.

PS: What special meaning does this quilt have for you?

ES: Well, it really doesn’t have a special meaning. I just like it because of its beauty, its bright colors.

PS: It is beautiful. Why did you choose this quilt to bring to the interview?

ES: I chose this quilt because of the color. It is bright. It is an African-American quilt and I have felt myself, on occasion, getting into African-American arts.

PS: What do you think about what this quilt says about you?

ES: That I am an African-American person.

PS: How do you use this quilt?

ES: Actually, I haven’t used this--well, I do use this quilt. I use this quilt for displays and exhibits.

PS: And what are your plans for this quilt?

ES: I don’t have any real plans for this quilt other than to exhibit it.

PS: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

ES: Well, my interest in quiltmaking started, I would say, with Barbara Mason. She was my neighbor. She was into quilting and I just sort of--she just sort of tweaked my interest, so far as quilting is concerned. And so, I had found these panels, not panels, these blocks and I said, 'Barbara, can I make a quilt out of this?’ She said, 'Yeah, you can make it.’ 'Well what do I do?’ She said, 'Sew them together.’ So I did and she came down and she helped me to put the quilt together, to tie it and we ended up folding the backing over for the binding. And so that’s how I got started. But, she continued my interest by giving me a gift certificate for a class taught by Ruth Dean at her quilt in a day shop, quilt in a day quilt. [Quilt 'N Go.] And she continued my interest in quilting that way. And so I just really got into quilting.

PS: How old were you when you started quilting.

ES: Oh. [laughs.] It was about ten years ago. Okay?

PS: And from whom did you learn to quilt?

ES: Well, from Barbara and from Ruth Dean.

PS: How many hours a week do you quilt?

ES: I don’t have a schedule for quilting. I just do it when I have the time.

PS: And what is your first quilt memory?

ES: My first quilt memory goes back to when I was a child. I can remember lying on top of a quilt and it had a lot of yellow in it. It kept my interest because my fingers kept following the pattern of the quilt. And so, that’s my first memory of a quilt.

PS: How old do you think you were then?

ES: Oh, I was young. I was about first or second grade.

PS: Are there other quilt memories among your families or friends?

ES: There are lots of quiltmakers among my friends, but, my family, they don’t have the bug, yet.

PS: How does quiltmaking impact your family?

ES: Oh, they like to receive them.

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

ES: I would say no, but I use quilts as a relaxation and they seem to calm me down. When I’m making a quilt I find it very peaceful. I find that I’m relaxed. I find that--I even sing when I’m quilting because I’m enjoying myself.

PS: Tell me about an amusing experience that has occurred from your quiltmaking.

ES: An amusing, I don’t know. I don’t really have too many. I don’t know. I don’t think I have any. I’ll think of something later, probably.

PS: If you think of something we’ll come back to that. What do you find pleasing about quiltmaking?

ES: Relaxation.

PS: What aspects of quiltmaking do you not enjoy?

ES: Well, I think I pretty much enjoy everything. I guess the worst part is basting a quilt, getting ready, making the sandwich, pin basting to get it ready to be quilted.

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

ES: I belong to Cal-Co Quilters, quilt guild, I believe it’s called. Ladies of Soul, [S.O.L.S.] a quilt circle, and Hospice Quilters. And I work with a group at church that’s called Quilt and Be Done.

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

ES: I think; that ever since I’ve been quilting that it has been new things coming out and one of the things that I did was, when I first started, everything that came out, I was buying it. So, how have new advances influenced my quiltmaking? Made me poor because I was trying to buy everything that was available. Now, I’m at the point--'well what do I do with this?’ I didn’t know what to do with it when I bought it. I don’t know how to use it now. And so, it’s just one of those things.

PS: What are your favorite techniques and materials?

ES: Techniques and materials? Okay. Of course, cotton would be bright colors, cotton would. Technique would be just sewing. I like piecing because that where I get the most joy. That’s where I think I’m more creative.

PS: Describe your studio or the place you create.

ES: Well, it’s a bedroom and it has a sewing machine and, of course, it has some windows so I can peep out, keep an eye on the neighborhood. And my ironing board a little ways away from the machine, and a cutting table and I have a futon that can change into a bedroom if need be, and some book shelves.

PS: Tell me how you balance your time.

ES: I balance my time by trying to cut out stuff ahead of time and when I have, like ten minutes in between, I’ll go to the sewing machine, sew something. And then put it away and next time I have another ten or twenty minutes, I can do some more. I don’t try to make a whole quilt in one setting.

PS: Do you use a design wall?

ES: No.

PS: Well, I just knocked out my next question. How do you go about designing your quilts?

ES: It is called 'putting things on the bed.’

PS: Okay, well then that would be your design wall.

ES: I just sort of--if I need to see it, I just put it out on the bed and look at it that way.

PS: What do you think makes a great quilt?

ES: The colors, the pattern and whatever the quilter is trying to express.

PS: What makes a quilt artistically powerful?

ES: Hmm. Just the beauty of it. When it’s finished, to stand back and see it. It makes it powerful, because all quilts, I think, have a certain amount of beauty and that’s found in the eye of the quilter or the eye of the person that’s looking at it. And so, if it’s powerful is because the colors are coming at you.

PS: What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum of a special collection?

ES: I think it is what it represents and the purpose of the exhibit. And so, if I had a quilt in a museum then whatever the cloth was that I made it from, whatever the colors were, then, yeah, that would make it appropriate for that. But it has to be within the theme of the museum. Or, the exhibit, I should say.

PS: What makes a great quiltmaker?

ES: I think a great quiltmaker is a person who enjoys quilting and who’s recognized for her skill.

PS: Whose works are you drawn to, and why?

ES: I am really drawn to the Gees Bend Quilters. Now, why? It’s like they are utilitarian quilters. They are, to me, they are just so natural. I’ve seen one of their exhibits and I have one of their coffee-table books. And, I just like what I see.

PS: Which artists have influenced you?

ES: I don’t think that I have any--yes, let’s say that Eleanor Burns. I just like Eleanor Burns, the way that she demonstrates quiltmaking on television. I purchase her books. I just like what she does.

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

ES: Well, I am not a hand quilter. And, so therefore, I would say machine quilting is wonderful.

PS: What about long arm quilting?

ES: That’s wonderful, too. As long as I don’t have to do it by hand.

PS: Why is quiltmaking important in your life?

ES: I guess it goes back to relaxation. It is a hobby that I find is calming, relaxing and that I can see the creativity as I progress in making something.

PS: In what ways do your quilts reflect your community or your region?

ES: Well, I think that being an African-American person, that my quilts reflect--some of my quilts reflect that I am an African-American person, and that I enjoy making quilts.

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

ES: I think that it brings us together and that it connects us to our past as well as lead us to our future.

PS: In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women’s history in America?

ES: Because I believe it’s an art that started with women and that women can look at and say, 'Hey, this is ours. This is mine.’ And so, when you can do that it’s very important to women in America.

PS: How do you think quilts can be used?

ES: Oh, other than bedcovering? Table runners, table toppers, placemats, pot holders. I get the greatest kick out of saving my little pieces, putting my little pieces together and making potholders out of them. Wall hangings, couch covers, oh, and garments and purses. Just many, many ways.

PS: How do you think quits can be preserved for the future?

ES: You know, I’m not real sure that they need to be preserved for the future. But, with careful washing, not letting them dry in the sun, by refolding them every now and then, and keeping them in cotton bags or cotton pillow cases, they might be preserved. But to me, I think quilts should be used and not put aside so that the next generation can have them or see them, because who knows, the next generation might just pass them on and give them away or just use them for the dog or something else.

PS: What has happened to the quilts that you have made, or those of friends and family?

ES: Okay. Most of my nieces and nephews have received quilts and they use them. I have, one of my sisters, she used hers and I have another sister whom I helped to make one. She puts hers away because she doesn’t want anybody to mess with her quilts yet. But most of my quilts have been used and that’s the reason that I make them. That’s the reason why I give them away, is because I want them to be used.

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

ES: Not enough time. There’s so many things I’d like to do, so many quilts that I would like to make, but it takes time. And there’s not enough time in the day to do all the many, many things that I would like to do.

PS: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?

ES: No, I think I’ve exhausted my thoughts.

PS: Okay. Well, thank you Estella.

ES: You’re welcome.

[interview ended at 12:55 p.m.]

Interview Keyword

African American quiltmakers
Design process


“Estella Spates,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 24, 2024,