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Stitch in Time Has Lasted a Century for a Champion Quilter

February 27, 1988|Deborrah Wilkinson | Times staff writer

Esther Preston doesn't get around much anymore. Her legs are swollen three times their normal size from rheumatism. Despite the constant throbbing pain and other normal signs of aging, the 100-year-old Costa Mesa resident rises daily by 5 a.m. While watching re-runs of old television shows, Preston starts her work day snipping, cutting and stitching fabric. A petite woman fondly known as "Big Mama," Preston has taught quilting classes at the Jerome Senior Center in Santa Ana and her exquisite bedding was displayed in a one-woman art show at UC Irvine. Aging now prevents Preston from creating her famous quilts, but she continues to trace, cut and stitch fabric to make unlined bedspreads, just to keep busy and alert. She traces a century of history from her native Texas to Orange County's Costa Mesa, where she now lives with her daughter and granddaughter. Her comments are taken from an interview with Times staff writer Deborrah Wilkinson.

I was born in Fairfax, Tex., in Freestone County in 1888. My mother died when I was 4 years old, so my sister and I were raised by our grandmother, Martha. We called her Momma. Lord knows, she was a strong woman.

Momma had been a slave and that's why I think she was so strict. Play time came after we finished our chores and that was allowed only on our property. Once a year, we could spend the night at a friend's house. She also had a heavy hand when it came to using a hickory switch. Shucks, back then children respected their elders.

I was 13 years old when Momma taught me how to make quilts. I remember that day like it was yesterday. I wanted to play outside, but she told me to sit down at the kitchen table and not to move, so naturally I obeyed.

Anyway, we worked on the quilt for hours. I didn't want to stop when it was time for dinner. In fact, I worked on it every day--and when it was finished, I started another one without Momma saying a word. Then she taught me how to trash cotton for stuffing. Now that takes a long time because all the lint and seeds must be removed. I'd hold the cotton real tight and start stroking with a curl comb used for grooming horses. The cotton would become soft and very fluffy.

Quilting was an art then. Everything was done by hand. Momma also taught embroidery, knitting and crotcheting so I could create beautiful patterns and designs. I love to make birds, trees and stars. Sometimes I would even create mountain and forest scenes. I also like the nine-patch (nine square blocks in different colors) design.

It used to take me two weeks to make a quilt. Every new design was a challenge of my skill and creativity. In the 1800s and (up to the) early 1920s, quilting was a way of life. Most black families couldn't afford bedspreads or expensive pretty linens and dresses. If you wanted those things, sewing was a must. When I got married in 1906, I had 18 brand new quilts in my wedding chest.

I met my late husband, Lee (Buba) Preston, when I was 16 years old. My family was Baptist, but we went to a nearby Methodist church. One Sunday after church, I was sitting in a buggy with my sister and a girlfriend. A nice-looking young man strolled up and introduced himself. He courted me for two years before asking Momma if we could get married.

In those days, sex was never discussed. Children were told babies came from tree stumps. Three days before the wedding, my sister and I spent hours in the woods looking for a baby. I came home crying, empty-handed. I told Momma I couldn't get married because every good wife has a family to care for and that I didn't find a baby.

Momma laughed and hugged me. She told me a few things, but I wasn't really prepared. I got pregnant right away but miscarried in my eighth month. Buba and I rented a small farm for three years and then we bought 100 acres of land for $200 in Lovett, Tex. We raised cows and grew everything from potatoes to cotton. After the harvest, I would pull what was left of the cotton. What I didn't use for quilt stuffing, I sold for 50 cents a pound.

Then came the war and the Great Depression. Most families fell on hard times. But by the grace of God, we survived. I remember pulling cotton for 40 cents per 100 pounds. I also washed and ironed clothes for 50 cents a day. If I could have sold my quilts and bedspreads, life would have been so much easier.

When Buba died in 1945, I moved to Fort Worth and bought a small two-bedroom house with a lot for gardening and raising a few chickens. In 1964, my daughter, Ruth, drove to Texas and moved me to Orange County. Since her car wasn't large, I had to leave most of my things. But I brought everything I needed for quilting.

People at church and in the community started to buy my quilts, bedspreads and patch-work clothes. Word spread, and my things were in demand. Every item had a "Made by Big Mama" label sewn on. My quilts sold for $75 to $200. Customers and friends encouraged me to open a small business. But at my age, I figured it was a little too late.

The next thing I knew, the May Co. wanted to carry my items. Although it was a great opportunity, I had to say no. High demand can mean taking shortcuts and that's something I would never do. I just kept working at my own pace and everyone knows me as Big Mama. I've had a one-woman exhibition at UC Irvine, and I taught quilting at the Jerome Senior Center.

Now, I'm making bedspreads to keep active. Friends make sure I always have fabric. First I cut 2 1/2-by-2 1/2-inch circles, stitch each separately and then gather the tops to make smaller circles. I sew 50 circles together to make one patch (square). The number of patches depends on the bedspread size I want to make.

I may not be able to get around, but I have to do something. If I stop, I'd probably waste away. And I certainly don't intend to go into a nursing home.

Reflections showcases people from the county who have an interesting life story and gives them an opportunity to tell it in their own words.

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