Mary Jo Lear




Mary Jo Lear




Mary Jo Lear


Heather Gibson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

The National Quilting Association


Milford, Delaware


Heather Gibson


Heather Gibson (HG): Today is Wednesday, August 23, 2000. This is Heather Gibson, and I'm here interviewing Mary Jo Lear for the Quilters' Save Our Stories [Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories.] project. And we are at the Milford Library in Milford, Delaware. And, again, let's start out talking about the quilt you brought today, starting with its name.

Milford (ML): Okay, this is a white-on-white quilt, and that's because all the fabrics are white and all the threads sewed on it are white. It's entirely white, and you can make it as a one-piece unit if you want to. But this is made with twelve separate blocks. And you do each block separately in your lap, hand quilting it. You get the design on. You have a set of designs to use, and you get them on your blocks, and then you assemble the blocks. Now, that part is rather difficult because you have to get them on the machine. It has to come out exactly to your measurements, and all of your math has to be perfect. And then you end up with these seams. So what I decided to do was put hand quilting over the seams, because I thought it would give a continuancy to the quilt. Now, I didn't do that by the borders because the border came out near to the next seam. I really enjoyed this because I like to do the hand quilting. Now this has an extra story. It was for my daughter's bed, and she had selected all the fabrics and everything else. And we were both so smart, we never measured the bed, and it was too small. So I got to keep this one, and I made her another one in a larger size. And it's on her bed, and she loves it. So that was worth it.

HG: That's great.

ML: So I wouldn't have had this to put in the show recently, except that it lives at my house. It's just that we're not using it right now. We're using another quilt at home, a basket quilt.

HG: Okay. Now this has twelve blocks on it. Is that correct?

ML: This has twelve blocks.

HG: Okay, and could you--just for the tape because it might be hard to see in a picture- could you go through all of the blocks, or the most important ones, and tell me what designs are quilted into them?

ML: Alright. This is wheat [pointing.], and this is a fan, and we have a basket, and this is an overall thing, and this is a wedding block, the hands are closing each other like in marriage, hand-clasp. And there's a design that has a butterfly, and there's a harp, like a musical harp. Then one of these is called a sunflower, and this has hearts in it. And that's about it. I'm sure there's more. But I really, really like this quilt. It looks marvelous in a room, and you can have your wallpaper, and you can have different colored pillows. So having a white quilt does not detract from your room. Because it's made with love, and then you say, 'Oh, I love this quilt.'

HG: And is it all the same fabric?

ML: It's all the same fabric, and also the back.

HG: Is it exactly the same on the front and back? Is there truly a back to it?

ML: The way you can tell the back to it is when you put the binding on you start from the front on the machine and then you hand-sew it on the back. So the hand-sewn is where the back is.

HG: And you said you had the option of making it as one large piece or in blocks. Why did you decide to do the blocks?

ML: Well the blocks are better to do as an individual. You can buy a unit where it's all pre-printed on a great big piece of fabric. But that would be very tedious to draw that all up yourself. So for doing it personally, as a one-on-one, you would do it this way. Now, I'm in a group that quilts at the senior center, and we did a one-piece quilt, which we raffled at the last quilt show. And the reason we selected that was because we had six or eight ladies with different stitches, which you could use in a white quilt and it wouldn't be as noticeable as in a quilt with many colors.

HG: How long did it take you to make this?

ML: Oh, I can't even tell you. One other thing is, my friend Ginny Glen always said, 'You can't hurry a quilt.' It's kind of like the artist who was asked about his painting, and they said, 'Why is this painting so expensive? It only took you two hours to paint it.' And he said, 'Yeah, but it took me twenty years to learn how.' [laughs.] So all these blocks were in a group, like you'd have a pattern, and there were also other blocks so if you wanted to make yours bigger, you could do that. So when I made it bigger for my daughter's quilt, I had an extra long border. And I had a bigger design in the border. And I quilted it all in my lap at home. I didn't put it on a big frame. Then you know I'd say, 'I'd better get this one finished.' You always start in the middle for control. And she loves hers, and I'm glad I have this one.

HG: And this is all hand-done, except for the binding? Is that correct?

ML: Well, you have to assemble the blocks together on the machine.

HG: Right, but all the quilting is done by hand?

ML: The assembled parts are by machine, but all the quilting work is done by hand. All the quilting stitches are by hand.

HG: Okay.

ML: In fact, it doesn't look too bad. [laughs.]

HG: What special meaning does this quilt have to you?

ML: Well, I guess it means an accomplishment in that I've made quilts for each of my three children. One didn't specify what kind of quilt. I just made her one and it was fine. And my son's quilt--I started to make him a basket quilt and he said, 'No mom, I want a different kind.' So I made him a quilt called "Hidden Wells." And they were in different fabrics, and that was all machined together. And when you looked at this overall thing, your eye traveled around, and you'd come into spots and that's where the hidden wells came in. They selected all the fabrics for that, and they've used that one. And my other daughter, I had made her a "Hidden Wells" prior to that and it's in her guest room. When I go visit her in Pennsylvania, that's the quilt we use. So, that's three family quilts, and now I'm trying to make quilts for grandchildren. And the deal is they will get one when they're twenty-one. The reason they're getting one when they're twenty-one and not when they're getting married is because my oldest grandson is deaf, and he might never get married. So we decided that because he's the first one to become twenty-one next spring. And I'm working on his quilt now, and it's manly colors of blues and reds and a touch of green. And it's all machine work. It's called paper piecing. Paper piecing is another new concept in quilting, where you buy a pattern like it would be a dress pattern, only this is a pattern of this block. And it says, 'Put piece in block one.' So, you put a red piece in block one. Block two it may be green. And so forth and so on until you make this whole block. And then when you get all these blocks assembled, then you machine them together. This whole thing will be machine pieced. It will be machine quilted; also, because I think for somebody who will really use it a lot, it will be the best quilt for him. But over the years, I don't know how many quilts I've made. The kids, when they're little, get the baby quilt. And then they got the single bed-size quilt. There were two boys in that family so they got two quilts with ducks all over them. One's in shreds and the other one's still going. And then there was the little girl Kara. Her baby quilt was all teddy bears. And recently, she's just now going to be a freshman in school. Last summer she came to visit and she still brought this thing, which is in shreds. And she had pieces of it in a jar. Now this kid, someday I'm just making her a replacement one just to have in the cupboard. But she can't be using it. She's really fun. She likes quilts, and she likes the family history and that kind of stuff. And I think quilts explain something out of you, like you're being creative. I like to be creative, so this watercolor quilt I brought today is creative in that you select all these little pieces of fabric and put them together to form an overall design that would be pleasing to the eye.

HG: Mary Jo has this right in front of us. It's a wall-hanging.

ML: It's called a watercolor quilt and it's hand quilted. The little pieces are machined together because they're only two-inch pieces. And why I like watercolors is because before I got into quilting, I was in painting. So I think pieces of me want to be creative. I no longer do painting. I guess I painted so many paintings nobody had any walls left. Or I couldn't afford the framing, or something. But I no longer paint. So now I do quilting. There's not enough hours to do both, really. But you can use the skills you learned in painting and use them when you're doing quilting. Once a year in this quilt guild we do this thing called, "The Challenge" and they give you certain rules and you make up a quilt. It's a wall hanging, not a whole big quilt. I love to do that, because I get a chance to make something up. As soon as they announce it I go, 'Oh boy, this is what I want to do.' So, it's just how everybody's different and all our quilts are different. And when we bring all the recent quilts, the white-on-white that a lot of us had been making was called, "In My Garden." You got patterns for that, but you selected all your own fabrics. It had hundreds and hundreds of fabrics. Maybe one block would be a tall, skinny block. And then there'd be another short, fat block. And then there'd be a piece of a block that went down and connected over here. So each one of those, you're using all different shades, and flowers. Your fabrics, you might have a purple flower, you might have three different shades of purple in there. And then all the greens in your leaves. You can't imagine how many greens we made. So that was really fun, and mine is hand appliqué. And I got that finished, and one of our guild ladies hand quilted it. I'm ready, this weekend hopefully, to put the binding on it. And that's really my masterpiece quilt. I mean, wow. I'm not listing that for anybody now. It's going to be mine. I don't want to fight about this one's better than that one so it's my quilt.

HG: That's wonderful.

ML: But that was fun because there were eight or ten of us doing these, and each one was so absolutely, completely different. And when one would be finished we'd be so excited. And about six of them are finished, and it took a year. But you know what, it was worth it. The blocks would be--you'd get a pattern for the month. So maybe this particular month you didn't just get this one block, like this wheat plant here. You might have three or four things that belong to that. And that was where the fun was because it was so completely different. And we all had a good time doing it.

HG: That sounds like a lot of fun.

ML: Another thing…Well, I quilt at the senior center in town. People bring their quilts to the senior center. They bring us the top, the batting and the back. And they pay the senior center for us to hand quilt them. There's about eight ladies that do that. And we have a real challenge, because you never know what kind of a quilt you're going to get next. But recently we had a total awesome experience. This lady said, 'This box has been under her bed for years and she always dusts it off and puts it back.' And she said, 'This is the year we're really going to do something about it.' It had four beautiful quilt tops that her grandmother had made in these beautiful old-fashioned fabrics. Even some pieces to put the borders on these quilts. So we have the privilege of hand quilting these and working on them right now. And it's just a thrill. And it's just interesting to see these old fabrics. What's happening is the companies making the fabrics are collecting these things and remaking fabrics. Like they have fabrics now called "The Thirties," and they have fabrics called "Early Americana Fabrics" and so forth because people want to see these little old fashioned fabrics. I think they're great.

HG: Why do you think they are becoming popular again, or people want to use them?

ML: I think people want to remember the good things sometimes. Everybody says, 'I was raised in the Depression.' Well, there were good things in the Depression. One of the great things I got to do during the Depression was go in my grandmother's house where we lived at that point, upstairs to the trunk room that had all these trunks in it. And one big trunk, that you opened the lid up that way, was full of different clothes. And I was allowed to go in there and take out these old clothes and make me some new clothes. And I was a teenager, and believe you me I thought that was the greatest thing going on!

HG: So you sewed at a young age?

ML: Yeah. So I was a sewer, but there were never any quilts in our house. I came from a city, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Quilts were never mentioned. We had blankets. We had bedspreads. Nobody was a sewer. When my mother was having her six wonderful kids, she hoped one would be the sewer. So I guess I ended up being the sewer. I remember doll clothes. This doll in the trunk, I made all her clothes. I remember sitting on the porch there, and sewing the wedding veil for the doll, and all this fancy stuff you couldn't believe. But later on, we knew a family that didn't have any dolls. And I gave them the doll and the doll trunk. And everybody says, 'You didn't have to do that.' And I said, 'Well, she needed it and I didn't need it anymore.' So that made sense. But I enjoyed the doll, and I remember she had a pink satin coat. And I thought that was the greatest in the world. So I moved to Delaware twenty-one years ago, on a new marriage which is wonderful. But, Joe and I didn't have any friends. Well, how do you get some friends in Delaware? You join something. The first thing I joined was the church. You get friends at church. And then the next thing you know I met a lady. And I said, 'I understand there's a hospital fair and they need something for the craft booth. And who can I give that to?' And that's how I met that lady. And I've been making that kind of stuff ever since. Now a lot of them are things on panels, because you can't spend all your time and your fabrics to piece everything just to sell it at a fair. They don't charge large prices. So I do a lot of that. I enjoy that. I like to make Christmas stockings. I love to make crazy-patch Christmas stockings. They are just more fun. You can use velvets and you can use plaids and you can use brocades, and whatever you have. Old neckties are wonderful. You can put all kinds of buttons on them, and you can sew some extra lace and gold threads. Any of that, and no matter how they turn out they're marvelous. Last year my daughter asked me to make two she was giving for wedding presents. So that was fun to do that.

HG: So you're involved in a wide variety of crafts?

ML: Well, mostly quilting. Mostly quilt related. I'm not that into crochets, and knits and all those. It would be a terrible looking sweater if I did it. [laughs.]

HG: Did you make the vest you have on today?

ML: I made the vest I have on. I thought you know what; this is an artsy day so I'd better be artsy.

HG: Let's describe this for the tape. It's a vest made of several quilted pieces. It has blues, some floral pieces in it. It's lovely. Did you do that on the machine?

ML: Yes. It's on the machine.

HG: Have you made any other clothing?

ML: I make vests. Just vests. Oh, and sweatshirts. You can make really neat sweatshirt jackets by getting a nice sweatshirt that you really like, and split it up the front. And you adapt any way you want with fabrics that are coordinated, like in the collar. I made one recently and it's a cranberry color. I like fabrics by an artist named Debbie Mumm, and she always has a lot of folksy kinds of things. And so one I just finished has little folksy snowmen all around it. And the pieces that you add on--appliqué are little folksy angels. On the shoulder, on the back, on the sleeve, and on the front. And it's turning out just great, because I only finished it the other day.

HG: Neat. Coming from an artistic background, how would you compare the artistry behind quilting and the craftsmanship? Can you talk about the importance of each one to you, or maybe which one you find more important, or more enjoyable?

ML: Well, I think that in quilting, as in anything else, you have to pay attention to what is your outside product going to be. And you have to work with measurements. You have to get quality fabrics, and a design that's satisfactory for you to work on. There's no point in making a quilt that you hate, because the whole time you're doing it you'll say, 'I hate this quilt, I hate this quilt.' You might as well make a quilt that you like, because it's going to take a lot of effort, a lot of time, and it's expensive. They're not just something you do for fifteen cents anymore. But the whole fun of it is that you can have a finished product and feel like, 'I did that.' So we do have some art background in my family. My dad was an architect. But somehow during the Depression, and all those time periods, he never had time to teach any of us any of the artworks. But maybe some of it shows up later along the line. Maybe it's in the genes, like they're all talking about today.

HG: I've heard a comparison between quilters and architects, because you both have to be mathematical to some degree and use a blueprint. Do you see that correlation? Or have you thought about that before?

ML: Well, I've thought of that. But I think architects have to worry about so much more because they have to worry about all the air conditioning and the pipes and the plumbing, and the roof and all that sort of thing. Whereas with quilting, you're really working with three levels: your fabric, your batting and your back. And one of the things that's interesting today is that a lot of the quilters, when you're reading a magazine about who won the prize and who made the best quilt and that sort of thing, they have been art majors in college. Their main criteria, they were art majors before they became quilters.

HG: Do you think there's a larger percentage of quilters today, I guess, art quilters who have a background in art? Do you think that many of the traditional quilters have the same background? Or is there a difference between the background of traditional quilters and art quilters?

ML: Well, I think in the old-time days, quilts were made just because you needed a blanket to keep you warm. Whereas today a lot of the things are an art form. It might not necessarily be to be used on a bed. It might be on your living room wall. Instead of having this big wall painted white, you'd have this beautiful quilt on it. And you might want to have several quilts. You might want a Christmas one. You can put that up, and a spring one, and a fall one. I do that at home with wall hangings. I have certain spots where I can change my wall hanging with the seasons. And so that's kind of fun to do. And people come and visit our house, and we'll say, 'There's my paintings, and there's my wall hangings, and my husband's beautiful bookcase.' So we do a sort of artsy tour of our house.

HG: What are some of the reactions you get from your wall-hangings?

ML: Oh well, some good ones and some funny ones. A lady came by the other day and she said, 'Now if you just do this and this and this.' And I said, 'You know, I'm not going to do that. Because this thing's been up and I've known it has a mistake in it. And I might just replace it with a different one.' [laughs.] But it's been up because it's kind of friendly. It's a "Flower Basket," a "Painted Flower Basket." And I didn't pay attention one day, and one leaf is kind of goofy.

HG: So it's unique. Also, what are your favorite aspects of the quilting process?

ML: Well, I like the creative, and I really do like hand quilting because, to me, it's relaxing. And you get it all organized and do some while you're watching TV or something. Like we'll find out there's a program we want to watch, and I'll say, 'Oh, wait a minute. I have to get some quilting.' Because I can't just be watching a program without some quilting. Small things, like you're going to give to a bazaar or whatever charity in town needs something.

HG: Getting back to the quilt you brought today…It leaves out the color process of creating a quilt. Now how does that affect the process of making a white-on-white quilt, having that whole dimension left out? Does it heighten the other aspects, or change them in any way?

ML: Well, I think it says, 'Do this and do it well.' And a lot of us did these, and some people finished and some people didn't. The next quilts we went to were very, very colorful. So everybody went through their white fabric stage, and then went on to something more exciting. And today, there are so many exciting pieces of fabric. I know I have several that I had to buy because I couldn't live without them, and I have yet to figure out what I'm going to do with them. But that's alright. Someday I'll use the one with black-and-white trees, it might be a vest. Any time now.

HG: Do you have a favorite place to get your fabrics?

ML: Oh yes. In a quilt store. And my favorite place around here is in Lewes at Mare's Bears, because they have the right fabrics. And Mary Anne is so wonderful to people. She makes you feel like you're a member of the family.

HG: How do you learn to put fabrics and colors together?

ML: Well, some of it just happens. You can always look in books. One of the things when they have the challenge sometimes they'll give you fabrics. They'll give you three fabrics and say, 'Make a whatever.' One time we had fabrics with these wild-looking animals on them. And I thought, 'What am I going to do with that?' And that's one of my favorite things. I made all these mountains and stuff in animal fabrics. I named it "Early Tuesday" because I just wanted to name it "Early Tuesday." Everything has to have a name.

HG: Where's that quilt?

ML: Oh, you know what, it happens to be in town. They needed something to hang on the wall in the Music School Building on Walnut Street. And so that one was available and two other ones, because a friend of mine asked me if I had anything she could hang there. So it's there with two other ones. And they were all challenge ones, which are my fun stuff.

HG: Have you shown other quilts of yours or had them in quilt shows or in public?

ML: Yes, our last quilt show here in Milford. It was so much fun. And we also had miniature quilts. We sold the miniature quilts. It was kind of a silent auction deal. Supposing two are on a table and people are bidding on them, and you're thinking, 'I wonder who's going to get mine. Is it anybody I know?' Well, low and behold, somebody I knew bought mine. Hung it in her kitchen, and showed me a photograph of it. So I though that was wonderful.

HG: That's great.

ML: Yeah, it's real fun.

HG: What makes a great quilt?

ML: Oh, a combination of things. A piece of the quilter personally is in it. Your selection of pattern. And what is your goal for this thing? Is it to be a small item for a wall, or is it for a baby bed? Or is it for your grandson, or daughter? And your fabrics and design. A combination.

HG: And along the same lines, what makes a quilt artistically powerful?

ML: It's like a painting. You look at it and say, 'Wow.'

HG: Why is quilting important to your life?

ML: Oh, it's my artistic vent and my fun stuff. Definitely. I could no longer live without quilting. It's very, very important to me.

HG: You haven't done painting since you've started quilting?

ML: No, but recently somebody asked me to paint a picture of her house, and I just might try it.

HG: You should.

ML: I might give it a shot.

HG: Now do you think there's any common link between the quilts in this region, or any region you've been in?

ML: A common link between regions in quilts? I think we link the regions when we send our quilts to people in other areas. Right now I'm making a baby blanket, which is a machine thing, a flannel. And it will be for the first grandchild of one of my real good friends from Pennsylvania. And it will be going to Minneapolis, Minnesota. So we're connecting on that. And these baby blankets, you couldn't call them quilted, but they're the most useful thing. They're a yard square of flannelette. You can use flannelette on both sides, or cotton fabric on one side and flannelette on the other. And you just them sew around like a pillow case, turn them over, put some fancy stitches on your machine. And they're every baby's favorite blanket. It's in the wash. It's in the dryer. It's back on the bed. And I've been making them since my aunt made me one for my Barbara. And Barbara is forty-four, and I can't tell you how many I've made. Several of them for twins. And I wish I had kept a book because it would have been fun to read.

HG: How long does it take to make a quilt like that?

ML: Oh, not long at all. I have one ready to get on the machine today and hope it will be in the mail tomorrow.

HG: Great.

ML: So you just machine run, press it. Always press it. You're always pressing, always pressing. And wrap it all up, and say, 'Here it comes, with love.'

HG: So quilts travel today.

ML: Quilts travel today.

HG: What about the importance of quilts in American life?

ML: Well, I realize how they came over, as Helen was explaining, and the history of quilts. But today they're considered mostly Americana. But, as you read the quilt magazines today and read about the quilt shows, they're all over the world. They're big in Holland and Japan and there are just beautiful quilts in all areas right now. It's a worldwide tying us all together kind of thing.

HG: How do you compare the art of quilting as compared to traditional mainstream art forms like painting and sculpture and other things you see in museums?

ML: Well, paintings can last for four hundred years, or a thousand years, or whatever, if they're well taken care of. And sculpture can last indefinitely. A quilt's going to wear out if it's used. Some people have found old quilts in their family with just portions of them still in good condition. And anybody who's talked to me about that I would say, 'Have that framed nicely and save that part, and that can remind you of great-grandmother, or whoever even if you don't have the whole quilt.'

HG: That brings up an interesting issue. Should quilts be on walls? The art of quilting is kind of transforming from a utilitarian art to something that's more like the traditional painting and other things. How do you feel about that?

ML: Oh, I think it's great, because it gives you--it's fun to look at a wall with something on it. And you can think of the person who made it, or if you don't even know that person, you can make up a person. You can say, 'Oh, Mrs. Sally Jones made that, and she was so wonderful. And she used to make the best bread pudding besides making quilts.' So you can make a story with it.

HG: What about quilts in women's history, and telling women's stories?

ML: Well, I think it's very important, because it was one of the first things that women did that men didn't. Now I realize that some men are quilting today. But in those days any sewing and any form of sewing belonged to the women. And they were so alone out West on those prairies where they didn't see another woman for maybe three months straight running. And they could get together and have a quilting bee, and have friendship and help each other. And help with 'What kind of medications did you need to help with your children,' or 'Have you got a recipe for this or that,' or 'Is there an easier way to do something?' Which they definitely needed then. They didn't have all the books and stuff we have today.

HG: Where do you see the future of quilting?

ML: Oh I think it's going to continue, because it's just installed in so many of us today. Not necessarily my age, because we have many young women in quilting today. And maybe if it doesn't carry on in your family, it might skip a generation and the next generation will do it. For instance, my kids don't sew anything because momma's sewing. So they don't sew a thing. When I go visit my sons-in-laws, they say, 'Please put a button on.' But, the next generation will probably sew and do art things.

HG: I think all the questions I have are answered. Do you have anything you want to add for the tape?

ML: Oh, I want to thank you for the opportunity for this. I think it's wonderful. And one other thing I did one time, which I always wanted to do--I wanted to write up a story about my grandmother's house, which we moved into during the Depression when my family lost their house. But my grandmother was kind enough to take my mom and dad and six kids into her great big house. And so I always wanted to write a story about that so about four years ago I typed all that up into the computer and made some copies and sent them around to family. You know, it was fun to do that. And I included making doll clothes while sitting on the porch when I was real little.

HG: That's so important, and I'm sure they'll treasure that. They'll be so glad to have it.

ML: Yeah, they loved it.

HG: Well, thank you very much. This has really been a great time.

ML: You're welcome.

HG: It's Tuesday, August 23. This is Heather Gibson signing off.



“Mary Jo Lear,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 18, 2024,