Mary Ellen Tjossem




Mary Ellen Tjossem




Mary Tjossem


Amy Henderson

Interview Date



Amy Henderson (AH): Hello, my name is Amy Henderson. It is 1:14. Today's date is May 25, 2003, and I am conducting an interview with Mary Ellen Tjossem for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project in Paullina, Iowa. Thank you, Mary Ellen, for meeting with me today. Let's start out with you telling me about the quilt you brought.

Mary Ellen Tjossem (MEJ): Well, first of all, I've got to tell you that I had surgery and I wasn't feeling very good and I came home and I got kind of house bound and so I thought I've just gotta get out of here. So we, my husband and I, took a drive to the lake, which is about half an hour, or an hour, from us. We were driving along and I couldn't get out and look at garage sales which I dearly love, but I saw this fabric sale and I thought oh, I've gotta go there, I'm feeling good already. [laughs.] So we got out and on the table was just a bunch of double knits, and I told the lady there that I couldn't use them because I was a quilter, and she said, 'Oh, I have just what you need.' And so she took me into her garage and she had this great big garbage bag, and she opened it up, and it was just full of all sorts of colors of polished cotton, and she said, 'My sister and I make bedspreads for motels and here are pieces that we don't use,' and so they used three lines of this material with cording in between, but then they had about, oh maybe 18 inches on each side that they cut off of so many colors, well you can see the colors here, there's a lot of them. And so I thought oh, this is nice, I wonder how much it costs, and she said, 'We'll only charge you three dollars for this.' [laughs.] That was even better, so I thought oh boy, I've got to have that, so my husband drug that to the car, and it was heavy. And I took that home and I had it for, oh maybe, a couple or three months, and then I just looked in and it just looked like a bunch of different kinds of ice cream [laughs.] and I saw a picture of something like this in my Quilters' Newsletter Magazine, and I thought well, I think I can do that, it's the shell pattern, and I don't really know how wide that is, it's probably two-and-a-half inches across at the widest point, but it had to be done by hand because I have no way of knowing how to do curves without doing it by hand, so I sat and watched television and in quite a few hours put this thing together, and I think maybe I got the blocks put together and I might have used some machine stitching in between, but very little. And all of it is material that I got from this three-dollar bag, and I also made another quilt out of that, so I think that bag of three-dollar material did very well for me. I call it my ice-cream cone quilt, that's what we say when we have our quilt series, or when we have our quilt shows here, and so I [laughs.] when we get up and tell about our quilts, that's what I call it.

AH: And what year do you think you made it?

MEJ: Well, it was early 1990s, I think, I don't mark my quilts, I know I should, I see all these admonitions for it, and I really like to look at other peoples designs, and we have a computer now and I know you can do it on the computer and we should do that, my husband's really good at that so I think I'll turn that over to him. [laughs.]

AH: Did it help you work through the surgery in any way?

MEJ: Oh, probably, it's sort of nice to have a little inspiration, something that can take your mind off of your problems, but I mean I got through my surgery fine, so that wasn't really that it did that much good, but who knows, really, maybe it did. [laughs.]

AH: How do you use this quilt?

MEJ: I don't. It's in my closet. I only have three grandkids, too, so they all have a couple quilts each, but they don't have big quilts, and so I think one of these days I'm going to start, actually Christmas I think, I've got this plan that I've got to get three quilts done by Christmas. I don't like deadlines. [laughs.] But, actually, I just keep them for the quilt show, I kind of like to get them out and look at them, and when we have friends that come and are interested in quilts I like to do that, too. And of course a quilter always like compliments [laughs.], it sort of feeds you.

AH: Does this quilt have any particular meaning for you?

MEJ: No, I like the one I saw in the magazine, and it doesn't look exactly like that, but it turned out all right, and a lot of people plan quilts just down to the detail, but I don't really know how they're going to come out and look until I get them done [laughs.] and it's always nice when they turn out so they are acceptable to you [laughs.].

AH: Had you ever tried quilting on the curve before, or was this a new venture for you?

MEJ: Now when you say quilting—

AH: Well, sorry, piecing, I meant piecing.

MEJ: Ok, I don't really like to piece curves, but I have, and I'm not one of those kinds that looks really crisp and everything is perfect, I don't even aspire to that, if it's acceptable to me I like it [laughs.]. And I have done some curves. I've been doing it for a long time, so I should be able to do curves. [laughs.]

AH: Tell me when you began to quilt.

MEJ: Well, I married into this community forty-five years ago, and had a sewing bee that you'd come and have dinners and then the ladies would quilt, and they would make garments and I kind of watched the quilters a little bit, and they were always anxious to get somebody to help them, and so they were really good to me, to help me, I'd be upset about what I had or what I'd done, but I noticed that when you quilted there they kind of kept an eye on you, they sort of looked over your shoulder, so I tried to shorten up my stitches as soon as I could, because you need to do that to match theirs because if it's sold you don't want long stitches, you want short stitches, and then that's the way it's today, you have to practice, they have people practice until they are ready to pass inspection. [laughs.] But I think I kind of started almost right away, and my mother-in-law said, 'You know, Mary, quilting is a really, really bad hobby for a young mother,' and I knew that, I mean it takes time and of course you have a quilt up and these kids are running around bumping it and getting it dirty and that kind of thing, but we had three boys and we had them right away when we got married, and they would be so good to my quilts, and their friends would come over and they'd say, 'Oh, is that a trampoline?' [laughs.] And they'd say, 'Oh, no, don't touch it,' [laughs.] and I'd started work when my last boy was in kindergarten, I was a nurse, and I worked two days a week, and so I could cheat, I could work, I could quilt in the morning, and sometimes a little into the afternoon, go to my three-to-eleven shift and get my quilting done. And then we quilted every month, and so I was just in seventh heaven, and my mother-in-law and I would come together and quilt, and go home together and I miss her now. But I learned by Aunt Bertina, and she lived right across the way here, and she was my husband's great aunt, and my mother-in-law said, 'If you want to learn to quilt, Mary, I'll ask Aunt Bertina over, and if you want to make a quilt top,' and I made a baby quilt top. I made it in blue, and we have three boys, so that was just perfect, and it was very, well, it wasn't exactly primitive, but it was very basic, and we just sat there, my sister-in-law, and my mother-in-law, and Aunt Bertina and I, and quilted away until I think we were all doing very well on the first try [laughs.] and of course it takes practice.

AH: So the baby quilt was your first quilt?

MEJ: It was my very first quilt. I had not quilted at home, my mother tied quilts, and I remember the frames, and we got under the frames and had a little party under there while the ladies were talking and if they didn't want us to hear what they said they talked in Swedish [laughs.], but that was the only quilting. But my mother knew how to quilt, and so I don't really know how she learned, she seemed to know how, you know how mothers are, they know how to do everything [laughs.], and I didn't know until I was quilting myself, my mother said, 'You know, Mary, I started a wedding ring, a Double Wedding Ring, back in the '30s, do you think that you could quilt that for me if I would finish it?' and I said sure, and so she did, and it was a struggle for her to get it done 'cause it's a hard pattern, I think there's ways to do it now that are simpler, but nobody in my family knew, and I don't either, I mean I don't know how those techniques are, those really fancy fast ones, and wasting a lot of material, I just can't stand to do that, so.

AH: What do you think you gained with this community of quilters?

MEJ: I don't have to go to a psychiatrist [laughs.].

Beth Wilson (BW): Or a grief counselor. [laughs.]

MEJ: Yeah, yeah. We keep track of our kids and our grandkids, and tell all about our problems, and we say it's a good thing we don't have a recorder here, and we always say it would be nice to have our husbands quilt, and my husband did try it one time, but it didn't go fast enough, but he did little stitches, because he's very particular, but he said 'This isn't going fast enough, I think I could figure out a machine that would do this,' well I said, well you go ahead and do that and we'll get rich. [laughs.] But we talk about our husbands; we probably couldn't do that if they were there. I like community because I grew up in one. I worry about my kids not having a community. But it's a wonderful thing. I mean a community is a wonderful thing. I don't know how it helps me in other ways, just the camaraderie, the help, the friendship, it's just all good.

AH: What is your first memory of a quilt? Did you sleep under quilts growing up?

MEJ: On our guest bed at home there was a blue and white quilt that was quilted with the tiniest little stitches, and it had been given to my mother, I suppose for a wedding, mom and dad when they were married, and it was some cousins from her family, they had made it from Des Moines, Iowa. And I knew those cousins, but I was just a kid, and I didn't pay too much attention to it, and somebody in our family, I mean it's a well-loved quilt, and it will be taken care of, but [laughs.] I don't have it, but that's all right there's others in our family that love quilts.

AH: How many hours a week do you think you quilt?

MEJ: Oh boy, it depends on if I've got a quilt on. Every week I come here [to the school house at the Friends' Quaker Meeting at Mapleside.] and quilt from about 8:15 until almost 4:00, sometimes it gets past that and we get to talking and we have a quilt on here that's really fun, but at home, I'll quilt maybe all day some days, but I've got arthritis, so I've got to pace myself. But I'd say, when I have a quilt on, I try to put in like an hour a day, some days I can't do it at all, but then I'd like to catch up and maybe do a couple of hours.

AH: What do you find pleasing about quilting? Or quiltmaking?

MEJ: I like quiet, and my husband has the radio on, and when he leaves the house, and we're farmers so he's outside a lot, and so I shut off the radio and sometimes I just sit there and think and quilt. And sometimes I have music on, and sometimes I'll turn the T.V. on, but not very often, if there's something good on I do, but otherwise, just to have noise I don't even like that, I just like it quiet. [laughs.] But if there's somebody there to visit, or quilt with, I mean that's the fun part.

AH: What don't you like about quiltmaking?

MEJ: The piecing.

AH: Why not?

MEJ: Well, I don't know why I don't like it. I mean, I can like it when it turns out right, but if it doesn't turn out like I like it, then I get really frustrated with it, and I don't really know why I don't like it [laughs.], maybe it's not as fast or something, I don't know. I'm not good with colors that's one of my problems. I can go to a store and look through the fabrics and see this goes with this, but if you gave me a scrap bag, I am lost, I mean, I just don't know my color wheel, I took a class on it, but I've got to admit I don't like any patterns, I don't like any recipes, I don't like mother telling me what to do, I don't like any instructions [laughs.] and I don't take them very well, that's why, I mean, I kind of rebel against it, and my husband says, 'Do I have to draw you a picture,' when he tells me something, and I say oh, please do, I mean, I would just love a picture. [laughs.] So I think I do things differently than other people, some people you can just tell them how it's done, and I don't really get it, I just have to see a garment, or look at a quilt, and then I think, oh yeah, that looks like something I could do, I'd like to try that. And then I'll draw up my own pattern, I don't use the pattern from the book. I just draw up my own.

AH: What do you think makes a great quilt?

MEJ: Well, I've heard a lot of people say that you just have to have somebody in mind when you make it, which I don't always do, but I know that somewhere down the road maybe somebody's going to like this quilt, so I have that picture in my mind. So, I think if you just put a lot of love in it [laughs.] you're going to be all right. I like crisp, perfect quilts to look at, I mean they just take my breath away sometimes, but that's not the kind I make [laughs.].

AH: How do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting?

MEJ: I hate people that have to have something, just like they used cotton and nothing else but cotton, and they used special thread and that's the only thing they'll use, but I do have a few rules that I like, and--now what was your question?

AH: What do you think about machine quilting versus hand quilting?

MEJ: I like hand quilting because I think that puts yourself into it a little more, but I've seen machine quilting that's just gorgeous stuff, and you can't really, six feet--we say six feet away and you can't tell the difference, but when you get up there and see that one stitch is not exactly like another one, I like that [laughs.]. I like good quilting, but I don't have to have it I guess, and I've seen some wonderful machine quilting that's just wonderful.

AH: What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum collection? Should quilts be preserved for the future?

MEJ: Oh yeah, I think it's just fun to have stories--I love stories about quilts, that's why I should get on the ball and get my name on the back of them and stuff, but I do write some things in my journal, a little bit about the quilts so the kids will know a little bit about them, and I tell them, and right now they have good memories. I don't know how they will be when they grow up [laughs.], oh I don't know. I just look at a quilt and I just think every quilt is good in its own way, and so really I've never really hated a quilt, and I love to touch them, and I don't like rubber gloves on to touch them either [laughs.], and anybody can touch mine, I mean I don't care about that.

AH: Why is quilting important to your life?

MEJ: Well, I think I'm creative in my own way, and that's one of my outlets for my creativity, and it's a way of learning things, and yet I sort of rebel at those class methods and stuff, but there's a whole lot to learn everyday about everything, and so I know that what I pick up is good for me. I don't know, I sort of like the stash of quilts in my closet.

AH: What do you like about them?

MEJ: I suppose I grew up with not a lot of stuff, and so, and as I grow older and older I realize that things aren't that important, but there are a few things that are important, and my quilts are that.

AH: What do you think about when you open the closet door and look at your stash? How do they make you feel?

MEJ: Well, it looks like that closet needs to be used for something else besides quilts but I don't know what else to do with them [laughs.]. No, they seem kind of precious to me.

AH: In what ways do your quilts reflect your community or region?

MEJ: I'm not sure they do so much as maybe if I'm making a quilt for a person, they reflect more on the person. We have three sons and I didn't ask my other sons what they wanted for a quilt, and I didn't ask my oldest son, either, but I made a Dresden Plate in red and white and he happens to be a bachelor, and he said, 'Mom, take this quilt home and take care of it, I'm afraid I don't have--my skills in housekeeping aren't that good and I'm afraid I might ruin it, and so I thought I've got to do something for him, so I made a quilt that's got trees on it, and it's made in light browns and tans and golds and greens and blue, it's a pine-forest kind, and I think he liked that--but he doesn't have that one either, I've got it in the closet [laughs.] and he doesn't care, as long as he knows it's his, some day he'll have it, and it's a queen size one so it'll fit--no queen, but he's got a queen size bed, it will fit on that. But as far as reflecting the community, I don't think any of mine really do. I pick up ideas from different place and I don't think I make farming quilts, that kind of thing.

AH: What do you think about the importance of quilts in American life?

MEJ: Well, quilts are what you make of them, it's not like you can force anything on anybody, I know that because of my grandkids. I show them quilts but I don't say 'Alright, Kari, lets get down here and quilt,' because I want her to look at my quilts and want to do it, and teenagers--she's only eleven--but I think maybe she might quilt someday. If she doesn't that's going to be alright with me, but I think they are only as important as you make them, and I don't know how to make them important to people, except to give them a quilt and hope that they appreciate it. I always say I want to be dead and gone when they use it in the dog box, [laughs.] but I don't know how to make it important to them, they'll just have to do it by looking at me and knowing that I like them.

AH: In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history in America?

MEJ: Well, lots of times women don't get to show off as much as men do, and it's a way of showing that they have special talents, and I don't know a better answer.

AH: That's a good answer. How do quilts tell stories?

MEJ: Well, if you keep the story about your quilt, that would be one way that they could pass it down from one generation to another or if you put it in a diary or a journal somebody maybe will pick it up some day. And lots of times there's anniversary quilts and birthday quilts and community quilts and we have those around here that everybody on that quilt that signed it, they're dead, but I remember them [emotional voice.], so--

AH: It's a memory of these past family members. You also like to collect antique quilts at garage sales. Tell me about the antique quilts you brought today.

MEJ: I was garage sale-ing in Primghar, Iowa, and a lady--do I name her? Lavonne Oosterhuis. She was retiring to a retirement community in Spencer [Iowa], and she had this quilt on one of her tables and I could not believe my eyes. She said she had this quilt in her car trunk, and she had just been packing away things and every time she didn't want them to bump on things she had this in the trunk and she was going to throw it away, and she decided, well, I'll just wash it and put it on the sale, maybe somebody will like it.

AH: So she had been using it--

MEJ: She had it, yeah--

AH: In the car trunk just to keep other things safe?

MEJ: Right, right, I mean she didn't value it very much at all, so I was walking along there and her daughter-in-law was there, and I said, 'This is an old quilt,' and she said 'Yeah, yeah, mom,' she said, 'she just, she had it in her trunk, but she just put it on the sale.' I grabbed it before anybody could get a hold of it, and it had five dollars on it, and I thought well I guess it's going to be a very good bargain. And so I asked Lavonne about it, and she said it was her grandmother's quilt, and her grandmother was a Dunkard, I think that's a German sect, isn't it? She said she was very tall and austere and she was kind, but she was plain, wore long black dresses. She was married to a William Barrett and they homesteaded in, oh, what county in Iowa, Decatur County, and she said it was made before she was married in1885, because she knew that they had several quilts, maybe twelve, before they got married [inaudible.]. It's a Nine Patch, and then every other patch is a nine patch on point, and so the nine patch itself [pointing to the quilt.]--now, there's five four patches in there, but most of them are all nine patches, now there's two four patches right here--but this one is less than an inch, and these are just a hair--this is a half an inch, I should say, and this is an inch, and so they're like [Galen Tjossem interrupts the interview; inaudible.] and so they're tiny, I mean they're even tinier than a postage stamp, and I just thought it was really neat, I mean I just love the pattern. It's in deplorable condition, but some of these, I thought maybe they were restored, but they aren't, there's no way they could get those restored and, but there's some prints that have really weathered the time. And some of them are completely gone, but there's no batting, there's no batting in this quilt at all, I mean it's just two thicknesses. I was just tickled to death to get it, and she said, 'What do you want with that old thing,' and I said, 'Well, I'm going to take it home and love it, it's going to go on my quilt rack in my guest bedroom, and that's where it is. And I suppose maybe it could be put on the shelf and nobody ever touch it or anything but nobody's going to love it like I do. [laughs.]

AH: That's wonderful. Is there anything I haven't asked you today that you would like to tell us about your quiltmaking?

MEJ: I don't think so. I have a few quilts and there are people that need to have quilts, so I've got a stash, I mean I had grandbabies and I had to make them a special quilt because I have a lot of baby quilts at home, but when I saw that grandbaby I had to make one for them, and I don't think that I made it any different, than I would have otherwise, but I just had them in mind when I made them. I let their mamas pick out of the other stash I have at home, so they have what they like, but what I made for them, it's going to be my idea. I can't think of anything that you haven't asked, I thought I'd think of something, but I can't think of anything now.

AH: Well, with that I'd like to thank Mary Ellen Tjossem for allowing me to interview her today as part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project in Paullina, Iowa. Our interview concluded at 1:45 p.m., on May 25, 2003. Thank you.

MEJ: You're welcome.



“Mary Ellen Tjossem,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 21, 2024,