Lois Beardslee




Lois Beardslee




Lois Beardslee


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

National Quilting Association


Maple City, Michigan


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave, and I am in Maple City, Michigan. I am doing a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Lois Beardslee, and we are in her home. It is 10:35 on October 7, 2007. Thank you for allowing me to interview you. Lois, tell me about the quilt that we are sitting on.

Lois Beardslee (LB): I made it. It took several years. It's a crazy quilt. It started out as a repair job on an old flannel sheet and um, it was, the economic times have been pretty bad, the first decade of the 21st century, especially bad for people on the bottom, like Native people. We did not have a sheet and we needed another one, I couldn't even find a used one, so I started repairing the sheets. The base fabric was so weak that I had to keep adding on more and more to the pieces and pretty soon it became two sided and it became a quilt. We live a lot of the time in bush camps up in northern Ontario. We are in northern Michigan now, and I have family from both sides of the border. And of course a lot of Native people have that situation where their families are broken up by the border, so a lot of my blankets and bedding were up in the bush camps and I was just low on blankets and bedding, so I started piecing together our old clothing and old blue jeans, everything, everything, and scrapes from making clothing for my son. I don't have a sewing machine, and we were so broke I was making little boxer shorts for my youngest child and some of the scrapes of the fabric are in here-- old handkerchiefs, old pillowcases, everything. There are even some scraps someone had given me. An upholsterer had given me a sample book, and I had cut the pages of fabric out of that and was using it for cleaning rags. So even some of those are in this quilt. There are a lot of memories attached to the quilt. It took years to make. It is ongoing; it will always be repaired or stitched where it grows weak. I have a chapter here from a book, "The Women's Warrior Society. I'm Ojibwe, or" Chippewa and I'm an author and I do a lot of traditional artwork as well. I'm not a quilter. But this is a chapter from a book that is coming out in January of 2008 with the University of Arizona Press. It is called "The Women's Warrior Society", and it is about how Native women cope with inequality in the education system and in society in general. There are a lot of repeat motifs in the book and the book is a lot like a quilt or a painting in terms of structure and overall patterns. These women pin their long hair up with barrettes. They have wild horses and windstorms and wild elk and '57 Chevys that are bound up in their hair. And they keep these things restrained with beaded barrettes and when the women get upset the beads start to pop and the hair comes loose with all of the things that are contained. So these women occasionally lose their restraint and oh, talk about how they are going to make things better for their children. And then there is another repeat motif in the book. There are several poems that are in between the prose essays, and these poems are all titled, "Baby Stealers," and then they have subtitles in parentheses, so they are "Baby Stealers by Day," "Baby Stealers by Night." Baby Stealers by Night are diseases and things that we can't, we don't have much control over. Baby Stealers by Day refer to the theft of Native children who were put into a boarding school and taken away from their families. This particular chapter is called, "Baby Stealers by Indifference." ["Baby Stealers by Indifference" © 2007 Lois Beardslee.]

It wasn't supposed to be a quilt. It had never been
conceived of as anything more than a repair job, a quick
fix, a temporary solution to temporary poverty.
She had merely intended to mend an old flannel bed sheet,
itself pieced out of older flannel bed sheets and
inherited from her mother. But racism in hiring
had left her bereft of options when she woke up and tried
to figure out how to be productive on any given day.
So she started to mend the sheet.
She'd tried finding newer, less-worn sheets at the thrift
shops in the nearest city. But the urban poor always
beat her to those things. And she supposed it was
all right, because they were probably single mothers,
struggling for survival themselves. Or perhaps they
were handicapped people. Or refugees. There were
any number of people that America had taught her were more
valuable than she was. Do not despair for yourself,
America had told her, because there are those who
have even less than you. There are people who do not have
electricity. And being a good student of world
citizenship, she took this directive seriously.
She treated her limited access to electrical power with
reverence and considered it a godsend, a gift, a
privilege. And she paid her electric bill on time
whenever she could.

The flannel bed sheet had worn thin, so thin that the
family members put their feet through it at the weak
spots. Those places had become too threadbare to
merely stitch. So she added pieces from almost equally
threadbare flannel work shirts that had frayed and
torn and thinned in places, but yielded enough
solid fabric to mend the weak spots in that old flannel
sheet. So she began the game of catch-up, trying to
mend the lifeless parts of the old fabric with
almost-as-old fabric that itself had a short lifespan.

Eventually she was able to add stronger pieces of
fabric—patches from old blue jeans, themselves
patched beyond rehabilitation for so many years and
washings that the fabric had become thin and soft and
flannel-like. And she remembered the hours of
long, hard work for less than equal pay that she and her
husband had performed in those old rags. She
remembered years on her knees in the vegetable
garden, with children and then grandchildren. She
remembered coaxing a family to eat what was abundant
and free, a product of her own hard work and the
whims of temperature and rainfall—creating wonderful
recipes for great chunks of pumpkin and baskets of
greens. There had been wonderful salads and
creamy soups. There had been pies and breads. She had even
figured out how to hide pumpkin in brownies and
chocolate chip cookies. She wasted nothing,
because the economic realities of her life of exclusion
from the white workforce left her no leeway for loss
or waste or error in judgment when it came to her
slim resources.

After a while, the sheet was out of balance. One end was so
much lighter than the other that she could not throw
it over the big bed in the corner of the room
that held a big woodstove. So she sewed a few more pieces
of old flannel shirtsleeves on to the light end of the
sheet. And by that time, the sheet had consumed
so much labor that it had become a resource that shouldn't
be wasted. So the old woman began to fill in the weak
spots of the ancient flannel fabric, just so it
could support the weight of the newer, heavier used cloths
that increasingly dominated the surface of the sheet.
And, at some point, it became a blanket. And she
kept the prettier side up, turning down the knotted side
with the increasingly ragged flannel base fabric. And
when that flannel base increasingly gave way, she
was compelled to patch that side, too.

Eventually, that blanket was full of memories. When her
husband would come in from working in the barns, he
would point to a patch and remember the comfort
of that particular old shirt. He saw pieces of a
handkerchief with the American flag printed on it that
he had found somewhat stiff and hard to blow his
nose in. He noticed old T-shirts and outgrown children's
clothing and even an old pillowcase cut apart and
stitched wildly in a haphazard fashion throughout
the surface of the increasingly heavy quilt, the vibrant
reds and floral blues distributed evenly, as though
planning had become a part of this crazy fabric
of the life he was sharing with this beautiful woman. And
when one of the grandchildren found her wedding dress
and cut off one of the long sleeves during
dress up play, he saw the pale flowered fabric spread its way
across the soft quilt that insulated the family every
night. And he remembered her as young and even
more beautiful and enticing. And he remembered unbuttoning
the long row of small buttons on that soft dress and
reaching for the woman inside, kissing her hard,
smiling, and being loved back. He once asked her how she'd
managed to put scissors to the dress, but she'd
answered that the marriage was not about the
dress, it was about the man. Besides, this way she could
still feel its soft fabric against her skin. So could

She made her family biscuits, from scratch. She served them
warm, with wild grape jelly or wild berry jams. And
when children sat on the quilted surface of the
bed where they loved to snuggle, they dropped big gooey
glops of sweetness on the fabric swaths. Their
grandmother would discover the stains, then cover
them with a big circle-shaped patch cut from an old pair of
overalls or a child's T-shirt. And she considered the
growing number of circles a blessing rather than
a chore.

She earned a reputation over the years for her ability to
conserve. And comfortable, middle-class lovers-of-quilts and
conservationists came to her home to touch the skill and
knowledge that manifested itself in almost everything she touched. She
seemed to represent everything they valued about their new rural
environs in Chippewa country. They came to her for jars of
preserves and fresh vegetables and old-style Indian dolls made out of
cornhusks for next-to-nothing. And they marveled at her
resourcefulness. They wrote with nostalgia about her skills
and talents at conservation and gardening and gleaning. They begged her
to lend an ethnic presence to their conferences and educational
outreach programs and tributes to themselves. And they
asked her to do these things for free, even though they themselves drew
salaries and benefits and retirement plans. They never thought
about the fact that they were taking her away from the
endless task of survival in a time and place that had not allowed her a
job in the white working world for equal pay. And when she
suggested payment, they begged institutional poverty. They
espoused the value of her sparse lifestyle to the fragile planet. They
congratulated her on not using more than her fair share of
resources. And when she spoke of medical and dental
care, they explained how lucky she was to have any at all, because
there were those who were far needier than she who had far less
than them. And when she opted to save the money she would
have to spend on gas to attend such functions to instead pay her
electric bill, they thought her antisocial. And when she opted to
covet the hours of time she preferred to spend on her
personal needs and those of her family, they thought her greedy. And
when she always chose to stay home and weed her garden or stitch
on her quilt, they thought of her as someone unwilling to
take responsibility for her community and the futures of its children.
And when she cut a plate-sized circle out of her wedding dress to cover up the homemade wild rape jelly stains on the heavy,
handmade crazy quilt that represented her life, they never thought of
her as having been someone's child, having slept under the soft,
pale yellow flannel base fabric that would become her own
future and that of her own children and grandchildren.
That is sort of autobiographical. I'm not a grandmother, but I guess sometimes the stories take n lives of their own.

KM: As do quilts.

LB: As to quilts.

KM: Who sleeps under this quilt?

LB: This is my husband and my bed. [laughs.]

KM: This is your bed and you sleep under this quilt.

LB: Sometimes it is on the other bed over there in the living room. It moves around. My kids really like these quilts. My daughter in Maryland has one. She works for the government, and she has a similar quilt, patched, patched, and patched.

KM: Did you make that one also?

LB: No it was a quilt that someone had given us, but it had been used so much, washed so much over the years that it deteriorated. So I started using big circles like that. It looks a lot like this. Just trying to salvage those childhood memories for her and keep them intact.

KM: It is wonderful. Does she sleep under her quilt?

LB: Of course.

KM: Good.

LB: It is her blankie.

KM: Her blankie. [laughs.] So you did put a circle on this one too.

LB: It has a bunch of circles. The other side probably has more.

KM: It is very soft. It is incredibly soft.

LB: This is my wedding dress right there.

KM: Your wedding dress is in here too.

LB: It was my son. It was my littlest who one day took the sleeves off; and my husband said, 'oh no.' I told him, see it is not about the dress, it is about being married to you, growing old with you. That is the dress I wore when we were dating. [pointing to a piece of fabric.] Sponge Bob. [pointing to another piece of fabric.]

KM: I saw Sponge Bob.

LB: Everywhere, right there too.

KM: Sponge Bob is over here too. [laughs.]

LB: Old night shirts, those are the nicest. After a while you start really thinking about visual patterning, making it work visually. It is kind of nice when you get to that point with something like this, where you've got it structurally sound where it is a blanket, and now you can sort of play when you fill in the little triangles that didn't get a piece of repair or whatever. You start doing those things.

KM: You did this all by hand.

LB: It is all done by hand. I don't own a sewing machine. I don't own an electric mixer or anything like that. I guess I have other things. This side is a little brighter I think. This side is probably down more often, just because we have a big dog who likes to get on the bed.

KM: Has it been laundered a lot?

LB: Yes.

KM: It helps make them soft.

LB: It is a good size for the washer. Here I can put things in the machine. When I'm up in the bush, everything is washed by hand in the lakes. I spend part of the time on an island in Lake Superior; it is my family's island. It is about thirty acres, and we are the only house in about seventy miles of coastline. We have always had caribou there, but the caribou herd has died out. We saw probably the last one. There was, this spring there was a cow who had, she didn't calf for the first time in years. It was down to just one last cow in that herd. Last year's calf stayed with her, it wasn't run off because she didn't have a new calf, and then we saw her without last year's calf so we knew something had happened to it. I just saw the last caribou. When I'm up in the bush everything is washed by hand, stitched by hand, made by hand. I do baskets. I do quill work and old style sweet grass baskets, everything. Sometimes I'm working, especially when the days get short up in the north, I'm working by candlelight. It is soft, a piece of our lives.

KM: Do you think you will ever do another one?

LB: I know I have another flannel sheet that is getting worn thin. They are hard to let go of. And after having had the experience, I really like putting pieces of our lives together, but it takes a lot of time. I had that, that time, that unemployment gives one, and now I'm more in a phase of under employment where I probably work about seventy hours a week and I don't always make minimum wage, so it is not a good time to do it. But eventually things will slow down, hopefully. That is the story of the quilt.

KM: It is an excellent story of a quilt. It is a wonderful quilt. It is a wonderful poem, thank you for sharing that. What do you think makes a great quilt?

LB: Again I'm not a quilter so I don't do the designs. This one is just pieced together, it is a great quilt because it is our lives all wrapped up into one big package. But I see quilts that I marvel at, but I don't have that time, I don't have that freedom. I live in a different social economic space than I think you, the average middle class quilter, so I don't even have that experience. In terms of experience of doing, planning something ahead and doing that, I have that with my other forms of artwork; I do that with the quill work, where I make designs with porcupine quills and completing a basket. I usually have a pretty good idea of what I'm going to do when I start. I deal with quilters a lot. They come to me; they buy my artwork because I do traditional birch bark cutouts, which they are very rare. There are probably five or six people alive who make them. At one point there were two of us who knew how to make them, and you peel the bark as thin as typing paper and then fold it, and cut out multiple images, usually four-way mirror images of animal motifs and those are dodaimig. It is a word for a clan, so dodaim animals, they represent the way that we divide up our families so we don't marry one another. But they also represent the different categories that a community needs to survive. So there are five basic categories. There are teachers, healers, providers, leaders, protectors which came to be known as warriors. Every community needs those things, so the clan animals fall into those categories, and then there will be several animals in a category. So deer, moose, caribou, those are all providers. Depending on the geography of a given area, one animal may come to dominate that group. People from the deer clan are not suppose to marry people from the moose clan, because in certain geographic areas deer are more common than moose. But if you come up, like the downwind side of Lake Superior, that east side of Lake Superior, there is what we call a "snow shadow" there, or snow belt, the American term would be snow belt, and there is too much snow coming from the warm waters of that lake to allow the deer to survive, so deer clan and moose clan are the same people. They are interrelated. Then of course, part of knowing this clan system is knowing about these animals, knowing how they interact and knowing how to find them in nature, knowing how to utilize them, either by watching their behavior as signals of other things going on, or to hunt them for survival. That clan system is really important. I do those bark cut out designs, the dodaim designs- you have heard of a dodaim pole, a totem pole. I do those designs as a curiosity. It is survival art for selling to predominately non-Indian buyers and quilters really like those designs because they are the same upside down as right side up. You did that whole reverse mirroring thing and they are very abstract. They are very Warhol. And this was a very, very important part of the traditional visual language of the Ojibwe people. Sometimes quilters come to me and ask for those patterns, and I let them have them. I give them to them only if they don't use them commercially, because it is cultural appropriation to take those. We don't have a lot left. Those things belong to us. So I do interact with quilters. I respect what they do. I don't think I could handle a sewing machine. It is a little too sophisticated for me, too much worry where the thread goes. I showed you that bag that I made out of cedar bark fiber and porcupine fur, and it was a full sized women's backpack or carrying bag. That is something that I learned how to do from my mother and my grandmother. They just made small tourist items out of that. It is incredibly labor intensive. There are hundreds of hours of labor in that back pack. I just use it for demonstration, teaching purposes. But if one were very, very fussy about the quality of that fiber, one could make underclothing for one's children. And people did make some clothing using that fabric. Every culture has fabric in it that meets their needs. We didn't really have a need for super fine fabrics. We had every kind of skin you could imagine. It could be very light, very soft. And when I was very, very small my mom died when I was about ten, so I was very small- my mother made a rabbit skin blanket out of strips of rabbit fur. That was made over a fiber, wild fiber base. But we were in the bush; we were in really isolated places. So we slept under it. It was just like the thermal blankets that were popular in the sixties and seventies where we had that fuzzy fabric that held a lot of air. Those are the exact same sort of things.

KM: It is making a comeback. Is there anything else you would like to add?

LB: I can't think of anything.

KM: You did a great job. We are going to conclude our interview now. Thank you very much.



“Lois Beardslee,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 16, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2680.