Shirlee Burlingame




Shirlee Burlingame




Shirlee Burlingame


Pam Schultz

Interview Date


Interview sponsor


Battle Creek, Michigan


Eleanor Wilkinson


Pam Schultz (PS): This is Pam Schultz. It's Thursday, June 10th, 2010 at two o'clock in the afternoon. I'm interviewing Shirley Burlingame in her home in Battle Creek, Michigan. This interview is being conducted for the South Central Michigan Quilters' Save Our Stories Project of the Alliance for American Quilts. Hi, Shirley, how are you today?

Shirley Burlingame (SB): Fine, Pam. Thanks, and you?

PS: I'm pretty good.

SB: Great.

PS: Tell me about the quilt you brought in today.

SB: Well, this is the one that I did in a class and I took classes because that made me take time to do something. And it was my time too, with other quilters. I did it here in Battle Creek. I loved the store in which I found the fabric. They had fabulous fabrics at the time. You know Battle Creek at one time, we had many, many stores with fabric and it kind of dwindled down and this was just a quilt and sewing machine store. I did buy my machine from them, and so I got some free lessons and did some quilting there. It's been, oh, ten, fifteen years easily since I've done this [quilt.]. I made it with somebody in mind and then before I got it totally completed, their size of bed had changed. So, this was rather small at the time. So it has not been given away, but many of the others I made have been given away. Plus, I was always a neutral person and this has got some of the brighter teals and pinks and batiks in it, which was kind of outside my box, but I do like it after I got it finished.

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

SB: [pause for 7 seconds.] Well, it was a different pattern. I was a clothing constructionist and not a quilter in the beginning and it means that I could go versatile instead of just doing the 5/8 seam allowance. I did do the quarter inch, and cut little squares instead of big pattern pieces, and it is totally different. And this is--I'm kind of proud of this one. I like all of them, but as I said, I've given many of them away and not kept them.

PS: Why did you choose this quilt to bring to the interview?

SB: Probably because it represents my first work, and I still have it, and it is--all but the binding, it has been finished.

PS: What do you think someone viewing your quilt might think about you?

SB: Well, I think, I think it's uplifting. You know, I think it's--they're bright colors and they're fun colors, where before I'd have gone with neutrals. I kind of stepped outside the box with this one.

PS: How do you use this quilt?

SB: For display.

PS: OK. And what are your plans for this quilt?

SB: Well, [sighs.] that I haven't thought through. If one of my granddaughters should start housekeeping right now; they're, they're seniors and they're in college. I did make my other granddaughter one. It was too big. I took it apart because she then had a smaller bed and then she got a bigger one and I put it back together [both laugh.] So I'm not doing that this time. If this one will fit somebody's bed and they're interested in it, they may have it.

PS: And so if it needs to be a little bigger you just add some borders? [laughs.]

SB: I think, I'm thinking that way, yeah. And this was before I even thought about borders. You know in the beginning, they just--the teacher I had just wanted you to quilt for fun and enjoy the quilting experience, and not be precise, and of course in clothing constructions you had to be precise.

PS: Yeah.

SB: So, it was--I had a lot of things to overcome.

PS: Who was your teacher?

SB: Marti Barlond.

PS: OK. Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

SB: Well, I can remember as a kid I sat underneath my grandmother's quilting frame and I'd stick the needle back up as she pushed it down through [laughs.]

PS: Oh.

SB: And [chuckles.], moving along, and that was my first experience with quilting, and then it just kind of went on the back burner. She was a seamstress also and when I went to college I took up the home arts and did the--have a clothing major, but in clothing construction. And I discovered that, you know, it really wasn't as difficult as fitting as there was no human fitting. It was just fitting blocks and squares into patterns and the versatility was there with fabric and you could tweak it one way or another and there was just a lot of variance that you could get in quilts that you didn't necessarily have in the construction of fabric, of clothing.

PS: At what age did you start quiltmaking?

SB: Not till my kids were in high school, so it must have been, hmm, about the late 80's, early 90's. It was my way of stress release from being a wife and working outside the home and being a mother and doing all the other things that one does, trying not to be a super mom or yet, in many ways every moms a super mom. But this was nice quiet time. I didn't have to, I was accountable to no one but myself, I guess that's what I want to say.

PS: And from whom did you learn to quilt?

SB: I guess I would have to credit that with Marti Barlond.

PS: How many hours a week do you quilt?

SB: Oh, I would say at least 15 hours a week. It's still my stress releaser. And, if I get hooked on it, I don't stop.

PS: Are there other quiltmakers among your families or friends?

SB: As I said, my grandmother was. Yeah, I have a good friend that's--she was in the craft area construction and did sweatshirts and that long before she started doing quilts. She now does quilts, and then I have the guild and have the circle friends and so, yeah, there are a lot of mentors that I think I have.

PS: How does quiltmaking [clears throat.], excuse me. How does quiltmaking impact your family?

SB: They think it's great. In fact, those that haven't received quilts are pressuring me [PS chuckles.] to get them quilts before the end, you know? And, I have--I like it when they, uh, they use the quilts too, they do not set them aside and think of them as, you know, 'Good. We'll save it for tomorrow.' They use them.

PS: Good. Have you ever used quilts to get through a difficult time?

SB: Oh, yeah, yeah. As I said earlier, it's my stress releaser and I would, it's, it's a time for me and the quilt and the machine and the influences and what's happening around me just aren't there when I'm actually quilting. I don't worry about the outside. I have a quilt out there that I had done for my dad and I have one upstairs that I--they're actually lap quilts--that I did for my mom and, you know, I can look at those and recall my favorite memories.

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

SB: [pause for 5 seconds.] Probably, [chuckles.] there probably have been some, but at the time they were not [PS laughs.] thought as funny. [chuckles.] And, as you think back, at doing something, oh, it's funny today, it wasn't funny then. I made my sister an iris wall hanging. I was really proud of that. Took it to show off and someone said 'Oh, the background fabric is inside out.' And it was a batik type of thing and so, you couldn't really tell, but once they drew your attention to that, you know, so it's our funny flower. But, at the time it was not funny. And, it's really not ha ha type of thing, but, that's about the only thing I can think of that.

PS: A lot of them, too, look good on both sides. In fact, you get the bonus if you can use either side if you want.

SB: Yeah, but once you know, well--it lost it's value.

PS: [laughs.]

SB: It's still hanging up there.

PS: What do you find pleasing about quiltmaking?

SB: Oh, just the feeling of accomplishment. Look what I did, you know? And the oohs and ahs that you get are always kind of self-stimulating.

PS: What aspects of quiltmaking do you not enjoy?

SB: I don't like the preparation. I could, if you cut it out for me I would be glad to put it together. Just that, the cutting, oftentimes, I have one that is all two and a half inch squares.

PS: Hmm, that's a lot of cutting.

SB: Yeah. They have got the papers that you can put together, you know, and so you can come out with the half square triangles already squared, which help. But, no, I'd have to say I take cutting as a drudgery.

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

SB: Well, I do the Cal-Co Quilt Group, Guild, and then the Hospice quilt group are the only two at this point. I belong to the Sew-N-Sews at the First Presbyterian Church and they do quilts, but they tie all their quilts and they make the baby layette quilts and they do piecing. And I usually bring them home and sandwich them and get them ready for them to, for the other ladies to put on the frame and tie.

PS: Have advances in technology influenced your work?

SB: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. You know there's the quarter inch foot now and there's the stitch in the ditch foot. There's a lot of those that were not available when I first started. And, of course, the machines with all their stitches and regulators. They haven't improved in heaviness, or in lightness, as they're supposed to be, you know, portable, they're like the early televisions were portable, but heavier than the dickens. I made my own wedding gown when I was in college and I rented a Singer sewing machine, just one of the little tiny ones, and there was a dorm room that was for one person that was empty, so they let me use that so I could just spread out. And, I had my clothing teacher was available and so she did the fitting for me.

PS: Oh, how cool.

SB: And so I made that and it was an accomplishment. I was pleased.

PS: So, quite an experience.

SB: Yeah, it was. It was.

PS: What are your favorite techniques and materials?

SB: My favorite techniques. Hmm.

PS: Like patterns, construction methods.

SB: Oh.

PS: I know you piece and I know you appliqué.

SB: Yeah. Yeah, I do. And I've tried my hand on the, what is it, the little pattern all ready--

PS: Paper piecing?

SB: Paper piecing. Yeah.

PS: Do you like that?

SB: Yeah, I do like that, especially if it's small pieces. And so you can get more intricate designs. I made a sailboat once with a sail, you know, that's just, and that flag at the top was horrible to do. If you could paper piece it, it would have been easy. But, yeah, there's been a lot of advancements such as, you know, the half square triangle paper and the flip and turns and the ragged seams which you don't have to worry about. And then, of course, all the lovely people with their longarms that can quilt for you.

PS: Yeah.

SB: I, uh, this is an awful lot of fabric to put under a smaller machine. And, I do like the Quilt-as-you-go technique because when you put it together you're finished.

PS: And, those pieces at least start out smaller, they're workable under there.

SB: Yeah. Right.

PS: Describe your studio or the place that you create or the place where you create.

SB: [chuckles.] My dining room table. It actually is a library table so it is a little bit higher and a little bit wider and it makes it very easy to work with. It's not as hard to bend over and it doesn't get used as much now that David and I are the only two on holidays and then everything gets packed away or hidden away. Bless the upstairs nobody uses, so I just put the card table on the stairs and it makes a nice shelf and my sewing is behind the door. I'm giving away secrets.

PS: [laughs.] Someone may benefit from these kinds of secrets.

SB: [laughs.] I don't know as they have an upstairs off their dining room as we have in this old house with a door, but it works nicely.

PS: Tell me how you balance your time.

SB: How I balance my time? Well, I try to do this in the afternoon or of an evening. Still that hangover from doing it when my kids were to bed and my husband was at work but now we're retired so I do like to do it in the light, so afternoons. My best time of the day is morning, early morning, until about 2:30-3:00, so I like to work in everything in those periods of time and as I get older more and more of the light time and less of the dark, night time.

PS: That makes a big difference.

SB: Yeah.

PS: Do you use a design wall?

SB: No. No. I lay it out on the floor or else clear off the dining room table and lay it on that and look.

PS: OK. What do you think makes a great quilt?

SB: The use of fabrics and the designs and the quilting. You know, you can look at one and it just kinda speaks to you [phone rings.] I'm not going to get it. I'll let it go. But, you don't, you may not want that sound in your--

PS: It's ok.

SB: And good comprehension of color, I awe at the colors that people have chosen to match and to do things with--I'll talk with you later [to phone. answering machine comes on with message.]

PS: Oh, do you want to take that? [phone message is recorded.]

SB: [whispers.] My husband's decided we need a new telephone carrier.

PS: [chuckles.] What makes a quilt artistically powerful?

SB: Color combinations. Design. Movement. Just the overall feel that you get from looking at it, from--it kind of tells its own story.

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

SB: I think it has to have a story. Many times people express something that's happening in their life in a quilt. And you just feel that they've put their heart and soul into it. And every stitch is lovingly done. And when you ask them about it they'll tell you, 'This was at a high moment,' or 'This was at a low moment,' or 'I did this for a certain person or reason.' It's not just sitting down, putting fabric together and saying that's a quilt.

PS: What makes a great quiltmaker?

SB: Oh, I would say one who loves what she's doing and is never afraid to try something new, to step outside of her comfort zone, friendly, cheerful and willing to share.

PS: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

SB: I don't think there's any one person. Although I've liked the Thimbleberries line. I also like Nancy Halverson. And right now I kind of like Buggy Barn. I like some of their fabrics, that they do.

PS: Which artists have influenced you?

SB: Well, probably the two that I mentioned and then because I had done classes using their material. Oh, Eleanor Burns. I like Eleanor. And I like Fons and Porter. I enjoy their programs that come on. They used to have, I can see her but I can't think of her name. She recently was in Lansing [Michigan.] She had a television program too.

PS: Oh, Alex?

SB: No. She hasn't any books that I know of, but she did a lot--

PS: Nancy?

SB: No, I watch Sewing with Nancy. She's kind of short and heavy set. Hmm, anyway--

PS: Well, she knows who she is. [both laugh.]

SB: Yeah.

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

SB: Oh, I marvel at hand quilting and the patience and the time that it takes. And I think that's a category all by itself and that's a master in itself. If machine quilting gets more quilts out there and more people encouraged to try it, perhaps eventually they will go to hand quilting.

PS: How about longarm quilting?

SB: Oh, I think it's wonderful for those of us that don't like putting a little bit of material underneath that machine and want more of a professional looking quilt. And I think, I think that's kind of the difference too between a long time ago when you made something homemade and you bought it. And unless you were really precise and etcetera it always looked homemade. And now the tops are made and the results are more professional. And, of course, those people that kept at it, they have their steps so they could probably start with their beginning and then you can see how their skills and talent has developed and they're better at putting a lot of material under a smaller arm, but I think that's increased the number of quilts and the emphasis and the interest people have in quilts. It got them out there, it got them out into the field and they were being used and you know it wasn't--when they used to have the quilting bees many people got together and now we don't get together in that, that often, other than the guilds or your own little group. Mine only get together once a month, you know, for that reason.

PS: Why is quiltmaking important to your life?

SB: Oh, it's something that I can share with loved ones, with friends, and it gives you a sense of accomplishment. And it's fun. I love to shop for fabric. The feel of fabric, the colors that they have, the combinations that you might not even think of putting together and when you pull out all these fabrics, it's just fun. I can't resist, I have to stay away from fabric shops.

PS: [laughs.]

SB: I'm not trying to die with a lot of stash, but they're just overwhelming. I just don't see where everybody comes up with all these ideas.

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

SB: Well, I'd have to say that the fabric itself is what's available locally. I don't travel. Well, I go to Florida and I always look at the fabrics they have there and sometimes I bring back fabrics from that because you don't see it here. Their emphasis is always different. And I said to my sister that when she travels to buy me a couple yards of fabric wherever she is and she can make it birthday and Christmas gifts because she does a lot of traveling even now, which will be fun, it's like a challenge.

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

SB: Oh, I think that's probably one of the very few places where you still hold on to the past. And you emphasize the past and bring it into the present. You talk about them hand doing it and using the shirts to cut out the samples and lots of people say 'Oh that quilt, I can see all my mother's dresses in that quilt,' just like I could with the samples that I have from my grandmother. And that's kind of bringing the past forward and taking it along in the journey as we go through life. Through all our technology and everything. I just--yeah, you can buy a quilt in a bag or a bed in a bag or whatever they're calling that, but there's no personality, there's no love in those stitches, there's no time given to what would this person like and what are they like and how can I do, you know, how can I do that for them. Would they like this? This looks like them, I'm going to make this quilt for them, or this is a personal gift that I could give for a birthday, a wedding, an anniversary, a baby shower or something or other. It's just bringing you the past and you ran along into the future. And who knows? Maybe the future quilts will be made of Mylar and flame retardant fabrics or whatever. We're beginning to get some of those fabrics in now, but they're on the high tech end and when they come down to the clothing end, I don't know.

PS: Somebody will try it.

SB: Yeah.

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

SB: Well, it just, I kind of touched on that in the past, but, here again it talks about their lives and it shows what, what was available at the time. I'm thinking I have Civil War reproduction fabric that I haven't got it all finished and put together but you know that's of a certain era and those women had those colors available and that's what made it that era. And I think that that will come along with everyone else.

PS: How do you think quilts can be used?

SB: All over for anything. It would, it's my long dream and it probably will never come true is to have my chairs here backed with quilts, our chairs there. I even have a pattern to put a quilt pattern on my verticals. And they are old and I think it would rejuvenate them and be really nice. The only thing holding me up right now is I don't know what I'm going to do with the kitchen because we're trying to redo that and the colors I pick in that then I will carry through, through here.

PS: That's interesting.

SB: Yeah, but I think, and I love to see them used as table covers. You know, the whole dining room table. The tablecloth is a spread, is a quilt. Even though it may get spilled on, you can put plastic over it or you can spray it. My other fabrics get sprayed, get dumped on coffee and linen and wine and etcetera, you know, you can clean them up and sometimes they have stains but those all are memories. To me anyhow, maybe not to other people, they may think, 'Ah, there's a stain there' but that's a story.

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

SB: Well, such as you're doing now, through pictures and through recordings. And, they do have the quilt museums in which they take those that are unique and skillfully done and preserve them for the future. I have one upstairs, I should have pulled it out, that's the--I think it's either the Dresden Plate or the Wedding Ring. It's very, very worn. I don't use it other than to refold it now and then, you know. But, I look at that and wonder what was the story behind it and who made it. And I love going to quilt shows when they give you the bulletin and it tells you 'This was made for so and so.' Or, they kind of tell you the story and if you look at that quilt and read the story as you go along. It just--it just is history. Living history. And I hope that continues and goes forward. They're nice in the museum to preserve techniques, color combinations, fabrics, but I think passing down quilts from year to year and the story that goes with them. Or, I love to think of a story that might have happened, a mother who had a daughter that was getting married and she decided she'd do this. Or, I also think it's unique the t-shirt quilts that they have. This certainly has a story for all those who receive it and look at it and anybody that looks at it can see, 'Oh yeah, you know, he was a swimmer'. I have a friend who made, her first quilt was that for her grandson who was a swimmer and had all these shirts from swimming meets and et cetera and it's gorgeous. And, certainly, those are memories and that's history, and it'll be handed down family to family. I guess I diversified a little bit, sorry.

PS: Oh, that's quite alright.

SB: [laughs.]

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

SB: Yeah, that's interesting. I told you about the one that I made my granddaughter that I really had stepped out with the quilt, it was the pinks and whites and something else I must have gone with it and I'm not a pink person and she liked it so I gave it to her for her thirteenth birthday and I asked for it back to show it in the Cal-Co display and she said, 'Oh, grandma, you can't have that, I use it every single day.' She said, 'I love that quilt.' And when I saw it, she did love it and it had been washed several times. [chuckles.]

PS: Oh.

SB: I know. And I, at first I was a little bit angry and then I thought, no, she's using it and she loves it and, you know, I didn't make it to go to a museum, I made it for them to love. My second granddaughter--I didn't get a picture of either one of those. The second one I just recently gave it to her for her sixteenth birthday. And I said, 'Well I'm going to come over and take a picture, but you've got to clean your room.' So when I was there, I said, "Is your room clean, can I go and take a picture?' 'Oh grandma, it's on the floor.' I said, 'Oh what's it doing on the floor?' 'Well, Amanda slept under it last night.' [chuckles.] So, I'm not sure that it has quite the same meaning to them as it might have to me. I hope it does though, but I'm glad to see that they're using it and it was made for her colors, as was Carmen's. And I made Carmen one for graduation.

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

SB: The biggest challenge? Well, certainly if they're making them for bed sizes, the sizes seem to be increasing instead of decreasing.

PS: [laughs.]

SB: I think if they use them for wall decorations, there seems to be a lot of homes now days made with high ceilings and so a very small wall quilt is easily overpowered by and out of proportion. I'd have to say, I guess size, maybe, proportionately to what they'd like. Other than that, I don't really know. Now I sleep under a quilt, but it's not one that I made, so I didn't answer that yes or no. [laughs.]

PS: That's a yes. Do you make wearable art?

SB: I have.

PS: Tell me about that.

SB: Oh, I've loved every bit that I've worn. I made a couple sweatshirts. [laughs.] Yeah. We were going to have a guild for--down at Quilt N Go and she wanted us to do a sweatshirt. I did, and then the guild fell apart because she's so very far in the winter time and the deer and everything it's just prohibitive really to go there for a quilt group. But I made a couple sweatshirts there and I've made some--well I made my sister a wearable jacket. And I have the one that I showed you there and I wore it and loved it and always felt good in it and got lots of compliments. And, you know, I think, when you reach the point where it doesn't look homemade anymore then you feel a little bit better wearing it and you kind of lavish those compliments. And it's different, you know, not everybody will have the same thing on where you can go to the store and end up with five people with the same blouse or jacket or skirt or something, dress, but, here again, it takes patience and I don't know at this point in my life if I'd go for making another jacket or not, but it was fun to tackle it at the time.

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

SB: I don't think so. I met some great gals and made some good friends through quilting and they are always willing to share and they're friendly and interested in what you're doing and helping and it's just really that fellowship that I think women need, of all ages, and it gives you a self-expression where I don't--I'm not a poet and I don't write books, I'm not an author, but I can create quilts and they don't just stay in my home. They go out and they have, they have fingers and hearts and they reach out.

PS: Well, that concludes our interview. It's 2:38 p.m. Thank you, Shirlee.

SB: Oh, you're welcome. Thank you.


“Shirlee Burlingame,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 19, 2024,