Mary Koval




Mary Koval




Mary Koval


Joyce Starr Johnson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor


Houston, Texas


Rachel Grove


Joyce Starr Johnson (JSJ): This is Joyce Starr Johnson. Today's date is November 2, 2001, and it is 3:51 p.m. I am conducting an interview with Mary Koval for Quilters' S.O.S.-Save Our Stories Project in Houston, Texas, at the International Quilt Festival. Before we get started, for the sake of the transcriber, would you please spell your name?

Mary Koval (MK): Mary Koval. M-A-R-Y. K-O-V-A-L.

JSJ: Okay, great. Let's start with this quilt that we have in front of us, and why don't you tell us why you brought it today?

MK: Okay. I brought this quilt along so that I could explain to people that just because a quilt has an old piece of fabric doesn't mean that it is necessarily as old as the oldest piece in the quilt. It's as only as old as the newest fabric--

JSJ: Okay.

MK: That is in it, and I brought a quilt that has fabrics from eighteen twenties, eighteen thirties, all the way to eighteen fifties. So, this quilt would be dated eighteen fifties even though it has fabrics from an earlier time period. It also has some staining in it, and this quilt should not be laundered, because if it would be laundered, it could lose part of the fabrics. They would deteriorate. Some things are better just left as is. So that's why I brought this quilt. So, I could explain--

JSJ: Okay.

MK: The differences.

JSJ: Okay, and why is this type of quilt important to you in your life?

MK: Well, I am a fabric person. I buy and sell antique fabric and also antique quilts, but I love fabric more than I like quilts. So, I look for quilts that have more than one fabric in them, and this quilt has many fabrics in it, maybe fifteen or twenty different fabrics, and like I said, it goes from eighteen twenties fabrics all the way to eighteen fifties fabrics. So, it's a good representation of antique fabrics.

JSJ: Okay, and for the sake of writing it down a little bit later, can you describe the quilt colors, design, layout?

MK: This quilt is an Eight-Pointed Star, and the blocks are on point with a green ground, a rust and a salmon-colored border. It does have nice brown calico backing, and it comes from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and the pieces--

JSJ: But it's not an Amish.

MK: No, it is not. Every quilt from Lancaster is not an Amish quilt.

JSJ: [laughter.]

MK: It's not a Mennonite quilt either, but they are quilters also. There were other quilters and people that lived in Lancaster County. I also live in Pennsylvania, so I buy and sell and collect a lot of Lancaster County and Pennsylvania quilts. So, this is a special quilt to me because of the fabrics and it comes from Pennsylvania.

JSJ: And how many star blocks are there? Okay, I'm guessing probably five across by--

MK: Probably six or so five--

JSJ: Seven down.

MK: Okay.

JSJ: Thirty-five star blocks, so it's a large quilt.

MK: It's a very large quilt--yes.

JSJ: And we'll photograph it and measure it later.

MK: Okay. The earlier quilts were generally larger because they hung longer on the beds. So, the earlier the quilt, generally the larger the quilt, but that's not necessarily true. I've had quilts from eighteen ten that are only seventy-four inches. You don't know if they've been cut down or if they were just made that way.

JSJ: Explain for us your involvement in quilting, historically and currently. And start wherever you want.

MK: I think the first place to start is when I was a young girl, five or six, I started sewing, and I've always touched fabric my whole life, and I've always sewn clothes for myself and my children, and when my children were very young, I had a babysitter who had a quilting book, and I said, 'What are you reading.' And she said, 'I'm learning to quilt. My roommate's mother quilts.' So, she gave me the book and said, 'I'll pick it up from you next time.' And I immediately started wanting to quilt. And I read her book. I'm self-taught. I read the book, and since I am a sewer, I decided to go into business. So, I borrowed a few hundred dollars from my grandfather, and I started making and selling quilts. I made thirteen quilts in one year. Sold them, and my husband and I are antique dealers, so I went to auctions often, and I went to auctions, and quilts were selling very reasonably, and I felt that I could sell other people's work a lot easier than my own. So I started to buy old quilts and sell their quilts. Since I already knew what it took to make a quilt, I could explain to people why they should purchase them.

JSJ: And how long has that been now?

MK: Over thirty years.

JSJ: Thirty years that you've had a quilt business, any idea how many quilts have passed through your hands?

MK: I would say thousands. My business was very good in the nineteen seventies and eighties. We would sell anywhere from thirty to fifty quilts at a show, and we did an average of twenty five shows a year, and then business slowed down in the late nineties, and sometimes we only sold five quilts at a show, but now it has picked up, and I would say on average we could sell anywhere from ten to fifty quilts at a show, depending on the show. And Houston is one of the largest shows.

JSJ: And so, you start out as a quilter--

MK: Yes.

JSJ: And then sold other people's quilts. Are you still currently quilting yourself?

MK: Yes, I am. I am a quilter. I don't quilt often, because I am busy. I do buy and sell, and I do a lot of shows, but I'm also a fabric designer, and I did my first line of fabrics, with Timeless Treasures, your first line of fabric, you want to quilt something with it.

JSJ: [laughter.]

MK: So, I am still a quilter.

JSJ: Tell me about the fabrics you design.

MK: I actually started with an eighteen seventies reproduction fabric that I had liked. I had bought a piece of fabric with an 1881 calendar print on it, and I found that very interesting that there was a calendar print, and so I wanted to do something for the millennium, and I designed a fabric called "Dream Weaver 2001," and it is astrologically correct and also chronologically correct. All the calendars correct with the numbers and the days in the right places, and we just had a blue moon last night, that my husband was mentioning, and he said it only happens every--I think it was forty-six or forty-seven years ago. And I said, 'I wonder if my fabric had that on there. I don't remember, because the fabric's been out for over a year.' So, I went and got the fabric this morning, and it actually has two full moons in the month of November in 2001.

JSJ: Wow.

MK: So, I thought that was neat.

JSJ: Okay. And so, you're making fabric that connects back to your vocation as well.

MK: Yes.

JSJ: Okay. So, there's a strong inner relationship.

MK: Yes.

JSJ: Do you ever make quilts that are very contemporary as opposed to--

MK: Yes.

JSJ: Okay.

MK: I made a quilt for my son last year. Actually, from millennium fabric from the year before, and he lives in Seattle, and I went to visit him, and every day when we walked outside, he would say, 'Look. There's Mount Rainer.' So, when I saw the fabric with the Seattle skyline in it, I immediately said, 'I want to make him a quilt.' So, I made him a small wall hanging, because I am very busy. I made a Diamond in a Square with the Space Needle in the center and then the skyline all around with different prints in between. [inaudible.]

JSJ: About how many hours a week do you think--maybe a month or a year, you can define it any way you want--do you get to spend quilting?

MK: Quilting I would say very little. Probably just a few hours a month. When I made this quilt for my son it took about six months, and it was only a wall hanging. [inaudible.] Because I am busy doing shows and my other things, my designing and my fabric. I really don't sit down to quilt much unless I'm not doing shows.

JSJ: So, you're involved with quilting almost every--

MK: Every day.

JSJ: Moment of your life?

MK: Oh, from the time I wake up in the morning until I go to bed at night, I'm touching fabric.

JSJ: Okay. You mentioned--I just want to clarify a point that--that you started sewing when you were five, but then you learned how to quilt later--

MK: Yes, much later.

JSJ: And that you are taught yourself. Did your mom or someone else show you how to sew initially?

MK: My grandmother--

JSJ: Your grandmother.

MK: My grandmother showed me how to sew, and I did not live close to my grandmother. She lived in a different state. I actually have a quilt that my grandmother made, and she made it in 1930. It's an Irish Chain, but I really didn't get that quilt until much later. After her death I found it in a trunk, so no one even discussed quilting even though I bought and sold. Nobody even mentioned the fact that she quilted. And my mother did not like to sew. My daughters do not like to sew, but my granddaughter likes to sew.

JSJ: Well, we understand that it does skip generations.

MK: And kind of dying.

JSJ: What do you find of all the different quilt activities that you're engaged in--What is the most enjoyable?

MK: I think just touching fabric. [laughter.]

JSJ: Okay.

MK: Unlike everyone else, if I can touch fabric, I'm happy.

JSJ: Okay.

MK: But I do like putting lines together, putting--If somebody wants to make a quilt, and I sell antique fabric. I sell fabric from 1790 to 1970s, and they want to make something. I will sell them old quilt blocks, and then they will make sashing or backs or borders with the old fabric, and that's what I like to do the most--

JSJ: Okay.

MK: The designing part where we set it out. I call it playing. I say, 'Okay, let's play,' and we take the quilt blocks and lay it out on different prints and say, 'Okay we'll put it on point.

JSJ: Okay.

MK: That's what I enjoy.

JSJ: Do you find that it's ever been a part of your life during particularly troublesome times or particularly happy times? [5 second pause.] You want me to turn it off?

[tape turned off.]

JSJ: This is Joyce Johnson, resuming interview. It is 4:07 p.m. on November second. Okay, Mary, can you tell me about the personal value you have with quilting and family connections?

MK: Okay, I give lectures on how to make the quilts more valuable, and when I give the lecture I show thirty to fifty quilts that I think have different values, and I explain to people how a quilt is worth more money because it has different things happening to it either the color or correct fabrics, and at the end of every lecture I share my grandmother's quilt with them, and my grandmother's quilt is a plain and orange Irish Chain that has been machine quilted, and it is not the most beautiful thing after all the things that I have shown them, but it's the one that means the most to me. So, when I end the lecture what I try to do is encourage people to quilt not matter what their level of quilting is, because someone will always value what they have made, because I value my grandmother's quilt more than any quilt that I have ever owned or sold.

JSJ: What makes a quilt powerful, speaks to you or that you find speaks to other people when they come and look at your quilts?

MK: Personally, it's the fabrics, but that doesn't work for everyone. Pattern's important to a lot of people, but I will take just a plain whole cloth quilt that will excite me or a Four Patch or a Nine Patch, if the correct fabrics are in there, then that's what makes it sing to me.

JSJ: What constitutes a correct fabric?

MK: Just the beauty of it.

JSJ: Okay.

MK: Some people will look at the fabric that I look at and say, 'Oh, it's ugly. I don't like it,' but I know that it's from 1750 or 1790 or 1810, and I look at how it was produced and how the lines of a copper plate are precise and wonderful, and that's what makes it sing to me where other people look at and they go, 'That's nice.'

JSJ: Okay, so you're looking at some of the technical execution in its manufacture?

MK: Yes.

JSJ: Okay. Color?

MK: Color's very important, but my husband and I also collect black and white quilts and only solid black and white, not calico.

JSJ: Okay.

MK: But it's for the pattern and the dramatics of it--

JSJ: Okay.

MK: So that also speaks to me.

JSJ: Okay.

MK: But the colorful fabrics of the early ages make me happy and smile, and somebody comes in the booth and says, 'How old is this?' And I get to say, 'This is 1806,' and they get excited. Then I'm excited.

JSJ: If you take off the current crop of reproduction fabrics or fabrics that are inspired somehow from historic sources, are there any of those new fabrics that you think are good reproductions?

MK: Yes. There was a new line that just came out, and I think the company name is Chanteclair. Their fabrics were what I would call almost perfect to the color.

JSJ: Okay.

MK: And I am good friends with Judy Roche and her [inaudible.] who did the line, so I was quite happy to see it was an excellent job. But also, one of my fabrics--I have the original and the new, and it's hard to tell them apart.

JSJ: Wow.

MK: But mine was 1875. Theirs was 1810 to 1830s. There's was a really tight-fitting hook.

JSJ: What makes a quilt artistically beautiful?

MK: I think that's in the eye of the beholder. What I think is beautiful is not necessarily what someone else will is beautiful. My husband and I like folk art quilts where most people don't find those appealing at all. So I think that is a very personal thing that everybody has a different opinion on.

JSJ: What makes a quilt worthy of being placed in a museum or special collection?

MK: I think because of its rarity not so much of its beauty. If you have a quilt--The earliest quilt I think that I've ever really touched or seen was from 1760, and of course it's not going to be in perfect condition, but ink and weather--It is in good condition [inaudible.]

JSJ: How do you think quilters, especially some of those who become more notorious [inaudible.] --How do you think they learn to execute?

MK: I think it's because they love it, and they enjoy it. You can tell when a quilt was made for you and when a quilt was made because they like to do it. The points are straight. Their points are pointy. The lines are straight. The curves are done well, and I think it's all because of the enjoyment more than the technical, what they know how to do. It's because they really love to do it.

JSJ: Do you have any strong preference, either in the quilts that you buy and sell or the quilts that you make, machine over hand stitching?

MK: I don't think, and I get this question if somebody comes into the booth, and they say, 'This quilt isn't worthy of being this much money,' or 'This quilt because it's machine quilted, or it has a machine binding.' I think whatever you do the best work in is what's going to be good for you. I have had a quilt dated 1847 with a machine stitched appliqué border, and the border was machine stitched, and that was done for one reason only. So that she could show her friends that she had a sewing machine, and they did not. Not because she didn't want to appliqué it by hand, and I think any quilt made, as long as it's made, it doesn't matter how it's done.

JSJ: Certainly, with the price of those early sewing machines it was a status symbol. [laughs.]

MK: It was very much so, and I've heard women who say, 'This has a machine binding on it. I won't buy it,' and I ask them why, and they say because it's not old, and I have to tell them that the sewing machine was dated or manufactured in 1841, so if you have a quilt before 1870 that has machine stitching on it, it was a status symbol, not just not old.

JSJ: You talked a little bit about how your location in Pennsylvania is reflected in what you do, what quilts you buy and sell. Is it also reflected in the quilts you make?

MK: No, I don't think so.

JSJ: Okay. Patterns that you--

MK: No, because we travel so much. We do around thirty shows a year, and when you do that, many shows you go to a lot of different parts of the country. You go all the way from New England to California, so there is not just--I don't do just Pennsylvania type quilts.

JSJ: Okay. In what way do you think quilts play a role in how we think of American history or even more specifically women's history?

MK: Well, since women were not allowed to speak their mind, I believe that their quilting was the way they spoke. I owned a quilt one time that was made in 1806 by two sisters in six weeks, and it was for the war. Their brother was at war, and it was a stuffed work white work quilt with an eagle in the center, and that was the way these women worked through what they needed to do, and it was a sampling of taking there time off. Their brother was at war, and I think today just by what we've seen, the outpouring from September eleventh, that it really has impacted people and then to discuss it that it has happened.

JSJ: What are the kind of things you think women express?

MK: I think because of the fabric they choose it tells what's happening in their life at the time. It tells where their location is. Being from Pennsylvania, we have quilts with Lancaster County blue in it and that is--

JSJ: Describe Lancaster County blue.

MK: It's a double blue, the same as, with a double pink. It's a very soft, beautiful robin egg blue, and then it has deeper colors in it. It's a very deep blue and a very pale blue, and they're tone on tone, and it was manufactured in Lancaster--in that county, so quilts from that county will have that fabric in it. It does not mean that it wasn't exported to other places, but that's why it's called Lancaster County Blue, because the women bought it in that county and used it so mainly quilts with that in it are generally from Pennsylvania but not always.

JSJ: The women are expressing their home by using it. Do you see that in quilts in other parts from other parts of the country also?

MK: Yes, for your New England quilts with the much earlier fabric--They were importing fabric there. They had a port, and they were using Indian fabric in the early 19th century and whatnot. Involved more--a lot of red and greens, so it all depended. In the Midwest you see feed sack quilts. I think location has something to do with it.

JSJ: How do you think quilts should be used?

MK: When I sell a quilt, and people say they want to use it on their bed, I tell them that they should treat it with respect, and as any good bedspread that you have, you do not sleep with your bedspread, and if your quilt is on your bed, then you would turn it off every night and take it off the bed. If you're buying a quilt to use--and I encourage that too. I like to sleep with quilts. I think they're comfortable--then you buy a quilt that was made for use. You don't buy a Baltimore Album quilt and sleep with it, and you can buy a 1940s feed sack quilt or 1870s Nine Patch and sleep with it, but you don't sleep with a Baltimore Album.

JSJ: What about the quilts that you make?

MK: The quilts that I--I made my granddaughter a quilt, and it was just a whole cloth quilt, and it was flannel, but I like quilting. I like the sewing part. So, I just did some crosshatching on it, but it was flannel. She loves shoes. It had shoe fabric on it, and it's something that she should cuddle with. I think when you make a quilt you should realize what you're going to do with it, how it's going to be used, and the different fabrics that you choose to make it would be for its use.

JSJ: What about like the wall quilt that you made your son?

MK: That will hang on the wall.

JSJ: Okay.

MK: It's just--I mean it's only fifty inches. It's not very big, and he only lives in a one-room studio apartment. He's single, so--

JSJ: With, especially with, your buying and selling, do you have and recommendations to people about preserving them, or do you think that they should use them up?

MK: I don't know that use them up is the proper term that I want to hear.

JSJ: Okay.

MK: [laughter.] I think quilts were made to be used, but with anything respect--things will last longer. Our children grew up with antique furniture, and people would say, 'How do you let them touch them,' and I allow people to touch quilts all the time too. If you're not harming it, you're not tugging it, you're not pulling it. If you respect a quilt, it will last a long time, and I think respect is the word that--

JSJ: Nothing lasts for--

MK: Right. Nothing lasts forever, but if you respect it, it can last a long time. When I sell a quilt, I tell them it should not be laundered. When you launder a quilt, you lose ten years of its life every laundry, and if you purchase a quilt from me, and you respect it, you shouldn't have to launder it for at least five years, more if it's taken care of. So that again--You know if you're taking care of it, it's not going to wear out when you are using it.

JSJ: What are your plans for this particular quilt?

MK: Well, I would hope to sell it to someone who likes early fabric and want something from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

JSJ: The quilts that you bring in--do you try to keep a record of each one as part of a written tradition or--

MK: We did that a long time ago, but after thirty years it's pretty difficult with all the quilts that we were buying and selling. At one point we could buy as many as 200 quilts a week, because we have a large network of people who sell to us, not the fact that we've gone to a hundred places and bought that many quilts.

JSJ: Uh huh.

MK: But we would have somebody bring us ten quilts and somebody else bring us some, so--

JSJ: It was just--

MK: Right.

JSJ: Overwhelming?

MK: It's very overwhelming.

JSJ: Uh huh. Do you think you've ever seen the same quilt come in more than once?

MK: No, but I can tell you other people who have quilts that I have sold.

JSJ: Okay.

MK: And I did not sell it to them.

JSJ: Okay.

MK: And we like to write as much information down as we can. It's a shame that people will not allow us to take information, for the fear that we may try to go back to that home and try to buy something. It's a sad thing, because all we want to do it try to keep the name with the quilt or the county, and they're looking at is as somebody's going to come in here and take away things that they're buying and selling, and that's not our--That's not what we want to do. We just want to be able to pass the information on.

JSJ: Is there anything I haven't asked about quilts that you think is important for the rest?

MK: I think that if we had every quilt signed and dated, it will help us, and when I give my lecture on how to make your quilt more valuable, if I have two quilts exactly the same--They can be made by the same woman, and one of them she signed and one of them she didn't. The one with the signature will always be more valuable, and if we have any more knowledge than that about why she made it--I mean all of these quilts that are being made today, most of us will know why it's made, but somewhere the quilt will be lost. It will be somewhere, and when someone finds it, it's important to know that these quilts were made because everyone was trying to work out the pain of their lives and what is happening. So anything that can be recorded and put with the quilt--That's it.

JSJ: Thanks.

MK: Thank you.

JSJ: I'd like to thank Mary today for allowing me to interview her as part of the 2001 Quilters' S.O.S. project. At our interview concluded at 4:24 p.m., November 2, 2001.


“Mary Koval,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed April 24, 2024,