Ellen Preston: Surrounded by Quilts

Ellen Preston, Yoder, is featured quilter at the 2014 Quilt Along the Platte Show.

Ellen Preston, Yoder, was featured quilter at the 2014 Quilt Along the Platte Show.

Ellen Preston: Surrounded by Quilts

by Jane Dorn

Ellen Preston comes from a long tradition of family quilters and has many early memories of those quilters. Her first quilt was made by her 86 year old grandmother. It was the quilt her mother wrapped her in to bring her home from the hospital. The scrap-pieced quilt was sewn entirely by hand and is still cherished today. Ellen remembers her house as full of quilts made by her great grandmother, grandmothers, and maiden aunts. Stopping at her grandmother’s house in Torrington was always a quilting adventure with grandmother and the aunts cutting out piecing, assembling or quilting on the frame that took up most of the living room or sewing on the binding with the treadle sewing machine.

Once, when her father was on a “parts run” to town he dropped her off at Grandmother Likins. They were dying fabric, and Ellen was placed on a kitchen chair and told to stay out of the way. Two large wash boilers on the stove were filled, one with red, Rit© dye solution and one with boiling water. A ten yard piece of unbleached muslin fabric was simmering in the dye and stirred with a wooden stick. It was lifted from the dye and quickly transferred to the kitchen sink, then put into the vat of boiling water. It was again transferred to the sink, allowed to cool, and then wrung out by hand. The ladies then carried the 10yards of red, dripping fabric outside to hang on the clothes line. The memory of all those yards of red, dripping fabric really stuck with Ellen, even though she was only about 5 years old at the time.

Ellen’s first quilting lesson was at her Grandmother’s knee. Even though Grandma’s hearing and eyesight were failing, she could still show Ellen how to use cardboard templates, laying them with the grain of the fabric, marking around them and cutting them out.   She was frugal as always with the precious fabric, even sewing two scraps together to make one quilt piece. She also gave Ellen lessons on color selection and using prints and plain colors at strategic places. Ellen’s first quilt blocks are still in a box her Mother saved.

Ellen, grew up, married, taught school and had a family and moved back to a ranch near Yoder in the 1970s. Her Aunt, Ida Johnson had returned to Torrington to be near her family. She pieced a king-sized quilt top for Ellen. Aunt Ida came out to the ranch and they set up Grandmother’s old quilting frame and Ellen’s lessons continued. At first her stitches were large and uneven compared to the small even stitches Ida made but she practiced and learned.

As Ellen’s children grew up, she made much of their clothing and saved the scraps. Her first project was to make a quilt for each child from the clothing scraps. All three quilts were the double wedding ring pattern and the hand-quilted quilts were presented to them at Christmas 1998.

Ellen’s Mother had rescued 12 quilt tops pieced by her Grandmother and aunts when they died. Ellen and her sister Alberta each took six. By this time Ellen’s hand-quilting skills had improved considerably and she finished one for each of her children, a sister and a nephew.

With those quilts, Ellen’s quilting “career” took off. She actually went into a store and purchased fabric and started using a sewing machine to piece the tops, but still hand-quilted each quilt. She started making quilts for grandchildren.

Next came Ellen’s fascination with crazy quilts. Her Mother had saved remnants of a crazy quilt made by Ellen’s grandmother Erna Minerva Hepler Campbell. It was started in the 1890s when crazy quilts were the rage. Grandpa Campbell asked Erna to set the date for their wedding, and she laughingly said when her crazy quilt was finished. It was a good thing she capitulated as the crazy quilt was never finished. Ellen’s Mother finally cut out heart shaped pieces from the remnants and gave them to each of her children.

In 2002 Ellen’s husband Richard was cleaning out the loft of the old machine shed. He discovered a box that contained sewing items: an old pair of scissors, an acorn Chatelaine (miniature sewing kit), rug making supplies and a moth-eaten crazy quilt. The box probably dated from the 1930s when Grandmother Likins and the aunts moved into Yoder. The crazy quilt was so deteriorated that Ellen could only copy the stitches onto a sampler for a record before destroying the remnants.

Grandmother Campbell’s story plus the 1930s remnants inspired Ellen to start her own crazy quilt of red, white and black. The fabrics of a traditional crazy quilt are not the usual cotton quilting fabrics, but may include silk, wool, velvet, satin and other unique fabric. The fabrics came from many places: Ellen’s own stash, garage sales, China Town in New York, e-Bay, scraps from Evie Cecil’s career teaching home economics, men’s ties, donations from friends and lots of purchases.   The threads like the fabrics came from many places and were of many varieties: cotton, silk, polyester, rayon and ribbon. The embellishments on the quilt include many family mementoes and a huge variety of embroidery stitches copied from Grandmother Likins quilt and a collection of 18 books and calendars. Ellen completed the quilt in 2006 and has started a scrapbook detailing the construction and mementoes. It will be on display as part of her featured quilter exhibit.

Ellen is also fascinated with feed sack quilts, and has made nine quilts from feed sack materials. Feed sacks, most dating from the 1920s through the 1950s were made from printed cotton and contained chicken feed or flour.  One of Ellen’s quilts features four-inch squares of more than 550 different prints. She started with a stack of feed sacks saved by her mother and has since purchased many feed sacks from eBay and other sources.

Ellen is a prolific quilter and frequently makes modern quilts from modern fabrics also. Since she retired from teaching in 2004 she has taken many quilting classes offered by the Goshen County Quilters and has a truly prolific knowledge of both traditional and modern quilting techniques.