Beatrice Mayo has a section of a quilt project on her lap nearly all the time, busily hand sewing every part. In winter she is on her couch in her snug house in North Garden, heated toasty by a sturdy wood stove she carefully tends, and in summer she sews sitting on a swing on her front porch.
“I love sewing,” she said. “I love it. I love it. It’s a hobby to me.”
Now 79, she was raised in Louisa County, the fifth of 12 children (eight are still living), and learned sewing from her mother, who made clothes from flour sacking.
“I’ve been a seamstress all my life. I sew my own clothes. I started in alterations at Miller and Rhoads [department store] downtown. They had three seamstresses then. Then I went to the shirt factory [in Belmont]. I did collars. I stayed there a while. Then I was at the Young Men’s Shop and then at Hazel Easton’s. Then I worked in a private household for 28 years. I didn’t stop working until I was 78.” That was last year.
Since then she’s made four full-sized quilts, one about every three months. She usually gives them to relatives and her children and grandchildren.
Typically each quilt has 12 panels. She takes her inspiration from calendar photographs and Christmas cards.
Each panel contains from 300 to 400 individual pieces of fabric, each cut to a precise shape and carefully combined to form a scene.
“I’ll tell you how I make it,” she said. “I’m a very good artist—other people tell me that. I’ve never said it. But if I look at it, I can draw it. I do it on a sheet of paper. Then I lay it out on the materials and I cut it out and then I stitch each piece by hand. It’s hard to find sky fabric. I do some features with darning [embroidery] thread. I use a very small needle and I can still see to thread it. My eyes are real good.
“My momma was a seamstress and we lived on a farm. We made our dresses. We sewed everything by hand until we came by a treadle sewing machine. I never went to school for seamstress work. It came natural.” She prides herself on keeping an even stitch.
“Then I sew the square together. There’s always a background.” She uses a sheet for the quilt’s backside and puts a half-inch layer of cotton batting in the middle. She uses a sewing machine just once to put a seam around the outer edge. She only uses new fabric and she has a large, various supply of remnants stored in a bedroom.
“When I finish one, I’ve got another one going,” she explained. Two panels of a quilt featuring birds are done toward the next project.
“The calendars are very interesting,” she said. Her income was always modest, but she made a point of supporting a few charities, some of which sent her calendars every year. Some of those she saved because she was charmed by their photos.
One was a religious calendar with 12 passages from the Psalms. She made a quilt of them for her pastor and his wife, each quotation from the Psalms carefully embroidered on a landscape. “I had a feeling to give it. It’s between me and God. Sometimes you just have to give something. [The pastor’s wife] wrote me the loveliest card. She said they had never been given anything like it.
“You’ve got to live right to get to the Kingdom of God,” she said emphatically. “I try to help people. The only thing for me is God. Give Him everything. Believe in God.”
Her pride is a quilt she calls the Twelve Months of the Year, which she has made in both full and queen sizes. She did another she calls “Houses of Love” that shows various styles of old houses in different seasons of the year.
“No quilts look as pretty as mine,” she said, not intending it to be a remark of conceit. “I make mine different. It’s all by hand. A quilt should be a little bit wrinkled. I do it all in my lap. I put it on top of my bed to sew it together.” She sews a personalized label identifying her as the maker on the back.
She described her quilts as “lightweight” yet she admitted that she lifts hers off her bed at night because it keeps her too warm. She means for them to be used as bedspreads.
She said people have asked her to teach them how to quilt. “They have to be able to draw,” she said. “I can’t show them how to quilt if they can’t draw. You really have to love it or it’s no use. You’ll just get bored with it.”
Her panels show extensive embroidery work to express fine levels of detail, such as frost in tree limbs or leaves emerging in spring. In some spots she resorts to fabric paint, such as to add details of markings on bird wings.
“I quilt every day but Sunday. Sunday I leave alone. Each square takes a week of work. Sewing is a gift. God gives everybody a gift.”
But her gift is beyond the ordinary and her quilts achieve the distinction of folk art.