Marti Michell




Marti Michell




Marti Michell


Brenda Horton

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Houston, Texas


Karen Musgrave


Brenda Horton (BH): I'm Brenda Horton and I'm interviewing Marti Michell. It's October 22, 1999. We're at the Quilters' S.O.S. project in Houston, Texas. Marti, tell me about the quilt you brought today.

Marti Michell (MM): The quilt I brought today is called "My Provence Memory Quilt" and it is made from fabrics that I acquired when we went to Lyon, two and a half years ago, I think, for the International Quilt Expo. And I was representing--well Karey Bresenhan and the Quilt Expo people on the tour. I was their spokesperson on the tour that went ahead of time. So, I knew that we were going to get to visit a lot of fabric and textile plants in the south of France. What I didn't know was that we would be able to actually buy these beautiful fabrics from Provence right on the street. So, they have street fairs and things. I had planned--this was a quilt I was going to make just for myself, having been in the quilt industry since 1972. Of course, there really wasn't a quilt industry then but having been involved truly we became a business almost before I completed my first quilt. And so, I really never quilted just for myself – just for fun and this quilt is the Sunburst and it's made with templates that we manufacture. And so, I had made a plan for the quilt before we went to Provence. I had always loved the fabrics of Provence and I thought that this particular pattern would be wonderful made with those fabrics. And you know, I can actually tell you the very first night we were there, I actually started hand piecing in a darling little restaurant in Avignon. I bought a lot of fabrics, but I traded with people on the bus. And I was going to make it just for myself. Because I have a rule in my mind that says, 'almost everything I make ends up in a magazine or a book, and I shouldn't make it out of fabrics that are hard to get because that is not fair to the people who read the magazine.' And so, this one was just for me. But as it turned out everybody loved it so much. And everybody talked about it so much that I decided when we did our book that showed quilts using this template set that I would put it on the cover. And I rationalized by saying, 'These fabrics are not hard to get, if you go to Provence, [laughter.] you can buy them on the street.' So, but then I am probably known as the queen of rationalization so that worked out really, really well. I think one of the reasons I brought it today when they asked us to bring one quilt, I was like 'Oh what am I going to bring? Am I going to bring the first antique quilt that I bought because I didn't even know then that I was going to start collecting quilts?' My husband and I have been in business together since 1972. And during those years we have acquired a rather nice antique quilt collection. So, I thought about it and decided that 'no I wouldn't bring that' and I thought 'oh.' In 1977 we had what was called the "Log Cabin Quick Quilt" in Woman's Day Magazine and that really changed things for a lot of people. I know a lot of people in the industry said that the first quilt they made was that quilt. And it certainly changed our business. It's just ugly as sin now. Well, actually it's a blue, green and yellow. It's kind of those bright colors that are coming back. I've told people if they didn't finish that quilt, they bought then, they should get it out and finish it now. [laughs.] Because those colors are returning. But it was a huge turning point in our lives. So, I thought I'd bring that one. Then I decided, 'No I don't want to bring just that one.' And then, I thought about two or three other quilts. And then I sort of forgot about it. When I got here, I didn't bring a special quilt. I thought then I would bring this one. And one of the reasons is besides the fact that I like it so much, I think it's the favorite quilt of my husband's that I've ever made. And like I said we've been in business together since 1972 in the quilt industry, so it really means a lot to me that he really likes this quilt. So that's kind of the story of that. And I think also making this just for myself I really have experience with this quilt. When I look at it, I get all those nice memories. And he was with me in Provence, and he was with me for the fabric purchases which was nice. I get all those warm feelings I got there and so it's a fun thing for me in that way.

BH: I noticed as you cut these pieces and put them in here together, you cut them so that the bees face out here and the flowers are centered right here. Tell us about that.

MM: I did a lot of positioning or "fussy cutting" partly because the fabrics were just so conducive to it. And it just added a lot of fun. I think for me the funniest one is the center square that has olives in it. I don't even eat olives. Something about olives just never-- but olives in Provence is a very big thing. So, I thought it was kind of fun that they would actually have olives on their fabrics. And there were quite a few fabrics that had olives. This happened to be a napkin square and I appliquéd everything on top of it in the center. The bees are also a very big hit and the lavender. You'll notice that there is lavender in quite a few pieces of fabric and of course, sunflowers.

BH: For Gauguin?

MM: No, for Monet.

BH: Are the bees because of Napoleon, wasn't that Napoleonic--

MM: Yes, right. And some of these things have that look too. But the sunflowers bring up another fun story. Our daughter Stacy is in the hand-dyed fabric business and has been… I think she was twenty-one when she started. Oh, if I say how many years, you'll know how old she is [laughs.] I think thirteen years. So, anyway she has a great following in Japan and she and I went to Tokyo for World Quilt in June of 1998. She had a booth there and I had a few things. She had a great booth. But it's interesting they don't use rotary cutters there. They barely use them. It's like us 15 or 20 years ago. Anyway, we were out with our little guidebook The Walking Tours of Tokyo, and all of a sudden, we discovered we were right outside the building where the Monet Sunflowers were in the museum. So, we got to see them and what 84 million dollars or something that was paid for that painting. So that was like a full circle for me.

BH: 84 million. Wonder what the most expensive quilt has sold for?

MM: The most expensive I'm aware of was a Baltimore Album which went for about $125,000 or $140,000--something like that. I think it was Julie Silbers and her ex-partner, whose name is Linda Reuther.

BH: I believe I did see that. You mentioned about your husband and Stacy too, tell us some more about your family.

MM: Well, the rest of our family, we have 2 children, Jeff, our first born, is married and lives in Seattle. He and his wife have two little boys that are now seven and almost four. And Carter is the seven-year-old, and the year when he was about four, we vacationed together. Finally, he said to his mom, 'Why is it that Grandma and Grandpa have to stop at every fabric shop?' [laughs.] And fortunately, just as he asked there was a wonderful display of our books. So, it was really easy to help him make that connection. He's pretty good, I took him to his first quilt shop when he was fourteen days old, and he's gotten pretty good about going to those quilt shops and understanding. The boys have done a little bit of fusing of quilt things with me. I haven't gotten him into actual quilting yet. Our son is a computer engineer with Boeing right now. And then Stacy still is in Atlanta and is not married. She has her fabric business and the dogs. [laughs.] Actually, I should say we have a granddog in Seattle, too. But I'm a lot closer to the ones in Atlanta. [laughs.]

BH: Are your travels quilt related?

MM: We were just talking about that last night. Almost all my travel is quilt related. I travel so much in business and luckily around the world. Last year, I taught on four continents, that was a lot. But that was a big year for travel and this [continent.] was one of them. So, of course we do travel a lot and every vacation is a working vacation. My idea of a real vacation would be to not have two suitcases of quilts with me.

BH: I'll come back to business in a minute. You mentioned being on four continents. What is your greatest quilting accomplishment?

MM: Oh, my! My area of expertise has always been helping people get started. So, to me anybody who starts to make a quilt, who knows in two years, five years, ten years they may have the prize-winning quilt here. But if we don't get them started, they will never do that. There has to be something that sparks the interest for someone to say, "I think I will do that". I think that is what I am most proud of. I have lots and lots of things in the years of manufacturing and selling and so on, that have been first projects for people. I feel like as water finds its own level, people do in this art form. Greatest accomplishment, the thing I'm most proud maybe is that the very first Michael Kile Award in 1991, that I received that. That was really a great thing.

BH: What is that award?

MM: That award is supposed to be for excellence and creativity in the industry. And it's given by the Quilt Market Advisory Council based on nominations and it's given in memory of Michael Kile who set wonderful high standards and quality in book publishing so it's very nice to be associated with that.

BH: How many awards have you won, or have you lost count?

MM: I don't know, I've never counted, I never even think of it that way. That was a standout, that's all.

BH: Do you make quilts that are just competition quilts?

MM: No, I don't do any competitive quilts. I never have. You know, it's a very time-consuming thing. Twenty years ago, I might have had a chance. But now, the place winners are all art people, when you get right down to it. Even if they did a traditional piece quilt, they were art trained and I'm not. I have a textile and clothing background, I'm a garment maker first. In fact, I was teaching sewing classes at home. Our children were little, and I was teaching sewing classes at home when they were 7 and 5. And when I started playing with patchwork, the women said, 'What is that you're doing? We want to do what you're doing.' Patchwork looked a whole lot more interesting than putting in zippers. That is when we had fitted waistlines and zippers in dresses and set in sleeves. And they thought if they were going to learn to sew, they wanted to do it with the patchwork. At that time of course, I was just playing with it. There were no books--actually there were, there were three and they were all reprints of books from the '20s and the '30s and from that--I felt I'm a textiles and clothing major, I can sew. I could teach this. And the only thing I didn't know was--of course that was an inaccurate thought--but I thought 'I was younger and all that.' [laughter.] The only thing I thought I didn't know was how to put a quilt in a frame – what that was all about. Then somebody at church told me that there was a lady who was going to be teaching quilting. So, I said, 'Great sign me up, I'll go.' It turned out that the Atlanta Park System had found a Georgia mountain lady who was going to teach quilting at the parks. Now, her concept of teaching quilting was, she brought one of her really wretched tops and she showed us how to put it in a frame and she sat us down at the frame to quilt. And when we had quilted as far as we could reach, she told us how to roll it. In between, she sat out in the back and dipped snuff. [laughter.] But the fun to me was the answer to the quilting frame mystique for me. Of course, there were a lot of things I didn't know how to do but with that I was a day ahead of the class. This was the early '70s. I was teaching quilting and then a friend decided we should do a craft show. And she made dried flower arrangements that she could do in three and a half minutes and sell for big bucks, and I made quilted pillows and things that took me twelve hours that I could sell for twelve dollars. So, it didn't take me very long to discover that I could not sell things for enough to make finished things. One time when I was getting ready to cut, Dick. Dick is my husband and I both claim we each thought of the quilt kits and there was no historian there to accurately identify--I was getting ready to quilt and I cut out twelve pillows and then wrote the instructions for them and put 9 in plastic bags and made them into kits and I made three kits into finished items. So, I could say here's the model and I could sell the finished product or if they could make it themselves, they could buy the kit. Well, in the early '70s the fabric stores were just full of polyester double knits. It was really a benefit to find a kit that had coordinated 100% cotton fabrics in it. That became a really good idea. The kits sold like crazy and then all of a sudden, we went, 'Gee, this is something we can do at more than just these craft fairs.' In fact, fairly quickly the craft shows started putting it in their rules "No kits" that was kind of interesting. So, we were driving to Iowa. My parents were there and that is where I was raised, and we were driving there for Christmas one year. It was very snowy and rainy, and I was mostly just talking to make sure Dick was staying awake while he was driving. Besides craft shows my friend Kathy and I had this little craft boutique in the corner of an antique shop. We called it a store. And I said to Dick, 'I think I'm going to see if there aren't some other stores in the Atlanta area that would like to carry the kits this year.' And he said, 'If you were going to do that why limit yourself to the Atlanta market?' and so, I always credit him for really starting my quilt business with that business lesson. And it was a really good question and I thought, 'I don't know. Why would I?' So, the middle of January when the Gift Market came to Atlanta, I went trekking down there to try to find someone who would represent us at gift shows--and that wasn't a quilt market and low and behold I found somebody. I had no idea what I was doing. None whatsoever. The product we had was a puffed Christmas wreath and it was the 17th of January. And two weeks later they had sold 1000 dollars' worth, at the Chicago Gift Show, for the next year. We were like, 'Oh, my gosh!' That time $14,000, was an annual salary and we got a $1000 order for Christmas wreaths. Well, of course we have nothing to start with we had to go out to buy everything to make these. We charged about $300 on our credit card and started cutting and assembling these kits. We've been in business ever since. That was the start of "Yours Truly." Yours Truly was a very--and you know the thing we did with Yours Truly may actually be what I'm most proud of. Because with that company we really almost introduced everything that anybody does now. It's almost embarrassing when people start talking and we say, 'We did that first too,' and 'We did that too.' But, in 1977 we published the first book that was sold directly to quilt shops. At that time there were about twenty to twenty-five quilt books available, but they were all available through bookstores and book discount structure and selling structure and so on. And the quilt shops couldn't buy them, and we couldn't even buy them and distribute them to quilt shops and we were trying to do that. And notions distributors didn't want to sell to the quilt shops because all the quilt shops wanted were quilting thread and needles and scissors and tape measures, just a few little things. The distributors wanted to sell to the full line fabric stores, who sold zippers, and buttons, and shoulder pads, and interfacing, and all that. So, we became distributors for quilt shops, and we couldn't even buy the books. And to think that in the first years '77,'78,'79 that those years that it was a big deal if we, the entire industry, came out with ten quilting books in a year or a year and a half.

BH: You laid a lot of foundation work then, didn't you?

MM: Yes, we did and also found it interesting that even though Yours Truly was sold in '85 and dissolved a few years later a lot of the books are still in print. It means we really did a good job and we picked good subjects and good people. And that's another thing we found, and that's something I feel I always had a talent for, seeing people that really had something to offer those in the quilting industry, so we first published and promoted as teachers – Mary Ellen Hopkins, Liz Porter and Marianne Fons, Jean Wells, Susan McElvy, Cheryl Bradckin, I'll just keep listing names because I'm afraid I'll forget somebody.

BH: Well, as you think of them just tell us.

MM: Yes, but you know a lot of people in that time frame have become very prominent on their own. At that time, there were a lot of things that made me really proud of Yours Truly. We really had high standards and we had a great product line. We did a lot for people, our employees, we hired lots of what are called 'sheltered workshop' for packaging. They loved it, they were so proud of what they did, they had great paychecks. We did a lot for quite a few of the designers and authors that we worked with, who could be self-sufficient on their own. There were a lot of things there. Yours Truly had a bad year and the bank asked us to sell our company and it was a very bad time. But, then the good thing out of it was to find out that people didn't really care. The minute it sold I was designing fabrics for Springs and writing books for Meredith Press, and we were doing other things and people just could wait to work with us and be with us. It was really a bad thing when we had to sell the company, but life goes on.

BH: So, you had to sell the company, but you felt that people didn't push you aside and you kept on going.

MM: No, I didn't feel that from people at all. And first of all, when you go through something like that you find out who your friends really are. [laughs.] The incredible thing was that we found out people really wanted to do things with us and to help us and that was nice.

BH: What are--you mentioned that five of your books were still being published. Which ones?

MM: Well, It's Okay if You Sit on My Quilt Cheryl Bradkin's Seminole Quilt--I think it's been revised one more time. I think when it went to another publisher it had been revised. The Basket Book by Liz and Marianne is now at AQS. I guess that maybe it I can't think of what the other two are.

BH: I own all three of those. So that's wonderful.

MM: I think Mary Ellen Hopkin's Double Wedding Ring, I think she just dropped that, but I think it was available up until about a year or so ago. I forget what the fifth one was. But not too long ago I was looking through a list of books and thought, 'They're still available that's wonderful.' Because most books don't have much of a life these days.

BH: No, no they don't. Talk about the techniques that you did and how you evolved from that point.

MM: Oh, and that would have been one of the other books. We actually started Harriet Hargrave's first book on machine quilting, and it actually changed hands. I didn't get to finish it. That was in the process when the company was sold. And one of Bettina Havig's books and actually we were starting to get Montano on a--we had her books all outlined at that time too. So those were some of the ones. Oh, I'm sorry, techniques, I am a machine person and as a matter of fact that is what made me think about Harriet because, it doesn't take you very long when you're on the business side to realize we need lots of quiltmakers who make 5 - 10 quilts a year, not 1 quilt every 5 - 10 years. And so, you look in a mercenary way for those techniques.

BH: Yes, you have to.

MM: So, you would see in a lot of our books there was an emphasis on that. And when the rotary cutter was invented and I was working with Mary Ellen Hopkins already on some ideas, one night when we sat at her store, she had thought of acrylic strips that you could mark with pencil the width you want, an inch and a half or two inches or whatever, then she would cut with scissors. We were sitting there and looking at this and I had just been given a rotary cutter from the people who were importing them, and I said, 'Have you ever tried a rotary cutter with those strips?' Talk about something that changed quilt making. Now two or three other people at about the same time came up with the same idea--well the only one I really know for sure was Jerry Salem at about exactly the same time her ruler came out. We hired Mary Ellen and Yours Truly sponsored seminars all around the country, a week, a month in different cities for shop owners and teachers, to teach them strip techniques and rotary cutting and rulers and that whole thing. Harriet came to one of the seminars, she was a young gal who had just started a small shop in Colorado, and she came to one of the seminars. She had been a machine embroiderer. So, she immediately added the concept of the feed dogs down and free motion to quilting. And she had this one little sample that she had brought for our show and tell, and I just went berserk over it, because all of the machine quilting up 'til then, we had to hide it if we did it at all. We did a lot of techniques where we worked on stitch and flip so that it was hidden machine. When I saw what she was doing I said, 'We can do that, and we can talk people into doing this.' We brought Harriet in as part of our seminar and took her to Houston the first year. We were still at the Shamrock Hilton then. I would introduce her and had her teach classes a day ahead of market for all of the shops. So, my main emphasis has always been on machine, partly because of the garment background I come from. I love my sewing machine and I'm comfortable with it and that kind of thing. So, machine techniques are my area. Now, I did think it was kind of fun on this quilt because I did have hand and machine piecing, hand and machine quilting and hand and machine appliqué all in one quilt. Depending on where I was and what was convenient to do.

BH: So, this is a sampler of techniques.

MM: Yes, it is and it is one of the reasons I brought it too.

BH: Have you always lived in Atlanta?

MM: No, I was raised in Iowa and Dick, my husband, was raised in Illinois. We both graduated from Iowa State, and we had a few years in Kansas. Kansas is where our son was born. And about five years in Ohio, where our daughter was born. And we moved to Georgia thirty years ago, in 1969. We've lived there ever since. But I still say when people ask me where I'm from I say, "Iowa." I live in Atlanta, but I'm from Iowa. My sister and I have inherited the family farm, right outside of Des Moines and have chosen not to sell it. We may someday, but it's been our family since--well I think it was--it's been a long time. Only one other person owned it after the land grant, and they only owned it two years. So, I forget whether the year is 1869 or not, it's right in there somewhere. My grandfather ran away from the farm to fight in the Civil War. People say it would have been my great grandfather, but in fact it was my grandfather. He was underage, he was 14 and he ran away. When he came back, he didn't marry until he was forty and my dad was not born until he was almost sixty. I was not born until my dad was almost forty, so we have these really long generations in our family. When my dad died, he was one of the last surviving children of a Civil War veteran. My sister and I are grandchildren. So, the family has been there a long time.

BH: How does quilt history fit into what you do? Has it influenced you as a quilter or what you are producing?

MM: I suppose it does in that I am really more of a traditional quilter than anything else. I love quilt history, so I am sure that it affects me more than I think it does. I belong to American Quilt Study Group and my favorite books are the state search books, I just love reading those and reading the stories. I like all of the pioneer women diaries and all that. So, I'm sure it affects me more than I think. This Sunburst pattern in a way was developed from historic influence. when we developed our template company and our first five template sets were all things that you really could cut with a ruler if you understood geometry a little bit and people kept saying, 'Oh, no I don't need those I can use my ruler.' I was determined that our next set was going to be something they couldn't cut with a ruler. So, I went into the historic quilts looking for a traditional pattern and this one kept showing up and attracting my attention. In terms of doing things specifically because of it. But I'm sure I'm influenced a lot by it because I love it so much and I love reading the history.

BH: What is your first memory of a quilt?

MM: [laughs.] Well, I have a butterfly quilt. My mom was not a quilter, but she won quilts at the church raffle. Always. And it got so that people would say, 'Has Alta Glenn bought tickets?' Because if she had then they didn't want tickets because she always won. So, my first memory of a quilt is that when I was old enough to know I didn't want to take naps, but young enough that Mom was putting me upstairs to take a nap, on their bed at that time there was this butterfly quilt. And it's probably why I got all attracted to scrap quilts, I just love scrap quilts, again the influence shows here. And it had butterflies, and it was set together with double rolls of squares, and I used to try to find the matching squares. Play a game- here's the fabric in this square. Where else is it? Oh, here it is. That kind of thing. So, that is my first memory of a quilt. The quilt is really tattered and torn, but I do have it. And the first book I did for Meredith after we sold Yours Truly was on scrap quilts and I put a pattern of the butterfly from that quilt in there. We put in a real airbrushed picture--what is it called when you do like glamour shots of people? We put the quilt in the background and the new pillow in the foreground so the antique. Well vintage, it couldn't be antique if I remember it--so the vintage quilt is in the background, and you can't see all the torn sections.

BH: Well, that sounds like you played games with that--it's sort of the new resurgence in the "I Spy" quilts.

MM: I was going to say that myself. Because the "I Spy" quilt I do a lot with that because of the hexagon templates, and I just think it is so much fun to do. And the "I Spy" quilts actually, Nancy Smith and Linda Milligan in their book P.S. I Love You Too introduced this quilt where every hexagon has a different conversational print. So, I've always bought all those prints and even though I didn't buy the book or see the book, I saw them on Simply Quilts and they were demonstrating this. Of course, they were telling you how to draft a hexagon and all that. Well, we sell hexagon templates so I'm yelling at the TV., 'No, no, we have those templates. You can rotary cut that quilt.' So, of course I went to the office and started--so that's why whenever I give a lecture, I show the five different sizes and all that. In fact, Nancy and Linda have asked if I can send my quilts to their store for a trunk show and I said, 'This is like sending your quilts to Mecca, you know.' Anyway, I always say they call it the "I Spy Napping Quilt" but I call it the "I Spy Staying Awake Quilt" because why would you take a nap if you could play with that wonderful quilt. And then I have a real simple one without the novelty prints I call the "I Spy Napping Quilt".

BH: Oh, we're running out of time, it is getting later than we thought. I want to know if you'd want to be--if you were going to make a recommendation for when a person should start learning about quilts, how old would they be?

MM: Well, like I said, I've started my grandchildren right now. I don't know, of course, anytime they show interest is a good time. And keeping them around quilts is a good way to get them to show interest. Looking for any clue that they have interest and try to take a few minutes. Not to make them have to be involved in quilts. I have a son and he did some sewing and quilting so, I don't see why his sons can't. We made sure they got to the Sisters Outdoor Quilt Show, and we talked about quilts there and so on. We have antique quilts that we talk about. We take them to quilt shops and so I can't imagine you're too young ever.

BH: Just be born under a quilt?

MM: Yeah. I mean quilts are our lives why shouldn't it be theirs. [laughs.] I'm probably not a good person to ask that question of--because we're just so committed to quilting with both of us and Stacy. Just if it starts with a "q" it must be a quilt. So, I just think it's a common thing. Last summer I was in Seattle, and I had a few extra days between events and so I made a date to take our grandson Carter out for the day--nobody else. It was the first time I had been able to do that. So, we started out by going to get the rental car and from there we went to McDonald's for breakfast. And there was something and I said, 'Oh, that would make a great quilt design, and by the way there is a quilt shop really, really, close nearby. This is a day for us to spend together but it doesn't mean that we do things that just you want to do. So, could we just stop by and maybe we could pick out fabrics for that design that we liked?' He said, 'Okay, if you promise not to take long.' So, we went over and got some fabric and did some fun things and he found the monopoly fabric and he said, 'Look at this, we have to get this for Grandpa.' And so, we did because--that's a long family story. But we got that because he spotted it. So, the day progressed and as were ending the day, we had spent a really fun time, we came by another quilt shop that I really wanted to stop at. I said, 'There's one more quilt shop around here that I really would like to see, would that be okay if I promise I won't be long. I won't even take my purse in. I just want to say hi to these gals?' He said, 'Okay.' In fact, he saw it before I did, because I wasn't really sure where it was. We got there and I didn't think they were even open, but we got up to the door and it was, so we went in. We were standing just chatting with the gals for a few minutes and he went over because he saw fabric with soccer balls and he said, 'Grandma, look.' And I said 'Aw, I wish I had brought my purse in we could get some.' [laughter.] And he kind of gave me that look. The girls said that I'd be seeing them tomorrow so I could pay them then, so he knows that 'I know my grandma well enough that I can get these things.' So, they already have that fabric thing and I think they appreciate what we do. They have several quilts.

BH: I'd like to ask one last question. What are your plans for the future? New projects or what vision do you see things going in?

MM: Well, our future, we personally are the only ones of our friends who are not retired, and we don't want to retire. I would like to not work as hard or as actively as I did, and I'd like to be able to--

[tape ends.]



“Marti Michell,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 21, 2024,