Mary Lee Smith




Mary Lee Smith




Mary Lee Smith


Patricia Keller

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Iris Karp


E. Lansing, Michigan


Francie Freese


Note: Michigan State University Museum also has a copy of this interview. The identification number there is 06.2001:170.26.

Patricia Keller (PK): Well, here we are with a new interview. My name is Patricia Keller. Today's date is August 12th, 2001. It's 2:10 p.m. and I'm conducting an interview with Mary Smith for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project at the National Folk Festival in East Lansing, Michigan. I want to thank you so much for joining us today and agreeing to be interviewed.

Mary Lee Smith (MS): Thank you, Pat. It's a pleasure to be here.

PK: I'm delighted. I wonder if you could start out with us by just giving us a little bit of background about yourself.

MS: Well, I was a stay-at-home mother and had extra time on my hands and when I was given a quilt top by my father that was made by my great grandmother, I decided that I had time to learn how to quilt and would finish the quilt top off and that's how I got started quilting. And like I said, I had time at home with my family in school and it gave me extra time to start my quilting.

PK: So where were you born?

MS: We were living at Whitmore Lake at the time. I was raised in Hillsdale County in Litchfield--

PK: I see.

MS: And so, growing up in a rural area like many people I suppose that live on farms now, quilt tops get put away in drawers or in attics, et cetera. [PK hums approval.] And my father pulled this out and said would you like this quilt top, and at the time I knew nothing about quilting.

PK: Really?

MS: So, then I took a class. I was living at Whitmore Lake, and I took a class from a gal in Brighton. And the first quilting I ever did I remember thinking I'll never quilt again because it was so time consuming.

PK: What was that first-class project?

MS: A baby quilt of our choice, just to learn basic hand stitching and hand quilting. I've stuck with the hand stitching, the hand quilting, pretty much all the traditional methods ever since. I really haven't gotten into the new techniques [PK hums approval.] and all the new technology with the computerized sewing machines and mass production in the cutting and all of that. I still do everything by hand with templates.

PK: Why is that?

MS: I find it very relaxing. I'm in no hurry to rush, get something cut out and whip it together to hurry to the next project. [PK hums approval.] I get a lot of satisfaction out of just doing something by hand and it's a lot more portable, more mobile for me that way. I can do it in my living room or family room or patio or traveling. [PK hums approval.] So, I've just been happy doing it that way. And my children I think appreciate the hand work that I've put into their quilts rather than by machine, so I've stayed with it.

PK: How many children have you?

MS: I have three children.

PK: Are they all grown?

MS: They're all grown, and they each have quilts that have been made specifically for them--

PK: By you?

MS: By me. Oh yes. In fact, I'm very tempted to buy the raffle tickets, but to be real honest with you, I'm, I don't think they would take kindly to my bringing home someone else's quilt.

PK: Is that right?

MS: Yes.

PK: Why do you suppose?

MS: They want what mother makes.

PK: So, did you set out to make a certain number for each of your children?

MS: No, it just kind of depends on what they express a desire for. It's usually been for a birthday. Sometimes it's a very special quilt with a lot of time put into it. Sometimes it's a more casual quilt, an everyday kind of throw, it just depends. [PK hums approval.] And whatever they express an interest in.

PK: That they see you already working on?

MS: Right, usually. And I'll make another one maybe similar or like it, you know, for them, but--

PK: Uh huh. Oh well the. Now I've so many questions. Let me try to take them in order. Your father took a quilt top--

MS: This one.

PK: And that's this quilt?

MS: This is the quilt. This was the quilt top he gave me. It was unfinished but it was all pieced and put together.

PK: Now who was the person who pieced it?

MS: That would have been Hattie Cook.

PK: H-a-t-t-i-e?

MS: I-E, yes.

PK: C-o-o-k?

MS: Yes.

PK: And where did she live?

MS: She lived in Litchfield on Cook Road, where I live. I'm in the family homestead there.

PK: Oh, I see.

MS: And she passed away in 1934, so I know this was made probably one of her last quilts because it looks like 20s and 30s fabrics, just guessing.

PK: So, you had to back it, quilt it--

MS: Right.

PK: And did you have any idea what she had in mind for the quilting?

MS: No, I just chose what they considered to be the traditional quilting pattern that goes in the plain block for the Double Wedding Ring.

PK: And this was your first, after the class, your first effort or did you do this before the class?

MS: Oh no, I didn't do this before the class. I took the class to learn how to quilt--

PK: After he gave you the top.

MS: After he gave me the quilt top.

PK: I see.

MS: Um hum.

PK: Well, you must have gotten over the class. [laughs.]

MS: I got over that first project and I said, 'I would never quilt again,' because it took, I think actually the first project I did on my own was by hand and it was a pillow. [PK hums approval.] And that's when I took a class. I figured there has to be, it has to be an easier way than this. It's not. It's still very slow. [laughs.] But I found it very rewarding, so I just continued with it.

PK: What do you do with this quilt?

MS: It just hangs on a chair rail, stair railing.

PK: So, you just--

MS: I use it more for just display. [PK hums approval.] I have to be careful because I know the old fabrics fade [PK hums approval.] so I'm concerned about that. You know quite often when I'm gone, I'll lay it out on a bed, upside down [PK hums approval.] with the back of it showing [PK hums approval.] so that it lays out flat when it's not in use. [PK hums approval.] So, I don't have too many creases in it.

PK: Good. Do you have other quilts from tops from your great grandmother?

MS: No, that's the only one I have. So, I know she was a quilter. And then when I asked my mother, who is now 93, about quilting in her family.

PK: That would have been your grandmother's daughter?

MS: Right. No, no

PK: Same one?

MS: My mother. No.

PK: Your mother?

MS: From my mother's side. This came from my father's side.

PK: Father's side. Okay.

MS: When I asked my mother, from her side, her mother, she said, 'Oh yes she made quilts, but we never kept any, they all got used.' You know, they were made to be used and none were ever salvaged or kept in the family. So, I know she quilted but I've never seen any of them.

PK: Your mother

MS: My mother's mother. My grandmother on my mother's side.

PK: So, you were looking at parallel generations?

MS: Right. No, two generations.

PK: Great grandmother, grandmother, okay. Sorry.

MS: Right.

PK: It's hard to keep these straight.

MS: That's all right.

PK: Your mother didn't quilt?

MS: No, my mother never did any hand work. She had Hattie Cook's sewing machine, the one that made this quilt top. [PK hums approval.] And she had a newer sewing machine that belonged to Hattie. She never had anything from her mother that was a sewing item. My mother never used the sewing machines that she had from my father's side of the family. And my mother only did hand sewing, which was a necessity, like sewing on buttons or shortening a hem or something. It's the only hand sewing my mother ever did.

PK: So she didn't give you any teaching--

MS: No.

PK: Of sewing skills. [MS laughs.] Where did you learn your hand sewing skills?

MS: I don't know. I never did hand sewing when I was young. I always used a sewing machine, but I did sew. I was in 4-H and learned how to sew in 4-H class. And it's just something I took up when I started doing the hand work here. That was the firsthand work I ever did. But I've always been interested in fibers.

PK: Is that right?

MS: And I belong to the Fiber Arts Guild, a weaving guild. And that's how this quilt came about was that I drafted a design from a hand-woven coverlet and made it into a quilt design. And then did all those little pieces and quilted it from a woven coverlet.

PK: When did you make the second quilt?

MS: Nineteen eighty-four.

PK: And when was this brought into your life? The--

MS: Early 60's.

PK: Early 60's for the Wedding Ring? Between the work on this quilt and the work on this quilt, what were you doing in quilting?

MS: I made baby quilts, and I gave them away not realizing, I think, the importance of hand sewing. And then I realized how much work and what really went into those baby quilts, and I just started spending more of my time on making larger quilts for my home.

PK: You felt sorry to have given away hand work? I need help with that.

MS: No, I don't feel sorry that I gave them away, I just think they were probably not appreciated because I think it takes a quilter to appreciate quilts. I think it takes someone that does a lot of handwork, and we have our generations now don't do a lot of handwork and I don't think they have the appreciation. [PK hums approval.] So, I decided to devote more of my time to doing quilts for my own family for home use.

PK: So, what's your total number of quilts to date?

MS: I'm not real sure. I just inventoried 24 quilts but some of them are antique. And then I've given some away and I didn't get them all inventoried, so I'm guessing probably 25 quilts [PK hums approval.] total. But between this one and this one, of course, there were other quilts, but my first one I have to look at and laugh because it was a Dresden Plate and I made it all out of cottons, which I knew--but when it came time to appliqué it on, I put it on polyester backing.

PK: Oh!

MS: [laughs.] And I know now that [laughs.]

PK: You wouldn't do that.

MS: It was a beginner's project.

PK: Now you wouldn't do that now?

MS: No, I wouldn't. That was the only polyester I think I ever used.

PK: Where is that quilt now?

MS: It's at home. [both laugh.] It's not given away. It's hidden. [both laugh.] I don't show it very often.

PK: Tell me what this blue and white quilt means to you.

MS: Well, the blue and white quilt, like I said, was drafted from a woven coverlet pattern and I was interested in weaving and I'm a very geometric person, so I kind of took to this one. And blue and white, it was very traditional for me to, and I've come a long way in my quilting since I did the first blue and white quilt, as far as using and incorporating different fabrics. It was like a safety zone, I think, for me at the time.

PK: Oh, that's interesting! Why that?

MS: Well, there's so many fabrics out there to choose from that [laughs.] it's kind of like choosing ice cream, you know. Sometimes you always go back to vanilla because it's safe. [laughs.]

PK: I see. [laughs.] Now has this quilt been exhibited or published?

MS: This quilt was entered in the first American Quilting Society show in Paducah in 1985. [PK hums approval.] It was not a prize winner, but I felt it was a prize just having it chosen to enter. [PK hums approval.] And when I went to the show there was lots and lots of wonderful quilts being exhibited, and I felt real honored to have it hang there.

PK: Have you, do you enter your quilts in competitions?

MS: Not usually. Usually, I make a quilt and then if I feel it's competitive, I'll think about where I'm going to send it, but I've only had one other quilt in competition and that was one that I made for my daughter for a 30th birthday, and again that went to Paducah in the year 2000. My main concern about entering competition is the care of the quilt. It's very hard to part with a quilt that you're going to ship across the country, and I think that you have to be real confident in the people that are going to be handling those quilts, and very secure in the care that they're going to get while they're in someone else's hands. [PK hums approval.] So, I'm not real keen on competition for that reason.

PK: Because of the risks to your quilts.

MS: Right. Right.

PK: I see.

MS: Even though it seldom happens. You seldom hear about something happening to someone's quilt. It's still--it's the process of getting there, the transporting, the shipping [PK hums approval.] you know, and then the handling and the hanging, shipping it back. There's just lots of places where the quilt could enter a danger zone basically. [PK hums approval.] It's just hard to part with a quilt.

PK: Um hum. Well, you started quilting in the 1960s. Did you have a dedicated space in the house when you got started to quilt?

MS: Well, I started with a dedicated space but as most quilters know, it kind of moves around the house. [laughs.]

PK: Tell me about that.

MS: Well, I started with a sewing area in my basement, which was a play area also for the children and kind of a family room, so I could sew while the family was there. And I put my first quilt on a large quilting frame, the great big ones, and my cat liked jumping on top of it because of the buoyancy, and the children liked playing underneath, thinking it was a tent. So, I decided that wasn't going to do too well. So, then I rolled the two sides of the quilt, put it behind the sofa and you could sit in a chair and quilt on both sides of the quilt while it was still on the big frame. But then I was limited to only that space for quilting. So, from that I moved to a quilting hoop that was in a frame on the floor. [PK hums approval.] An oval. And that limited me to sitting in a chair and always being bent over. [PK hums.] So, from that I went to a portable 14-inch quilting hoop and that's what I use today. And that I can move all over. [PK hums approval.] In fact, I have several in the house I can just pick up and quilt on when I'm there. [PK hums approval.] And I can take it on vacation or whatever. I just find putting the 14-inch hoop in my lap works the best for me. [PK hums approval.] So, after having my quilting space in the basement, I found that running up and down stairs took a little too much time because after all, when something's cooking in the kitchen I could be doing a little quilting. So, then it moved to the dining room. So, I not only had material in the basement, I had it in the dining room and that kind of took over the dining room table. [laughs.]

PK: Oops! [laughs.]

MS: And then when we moved from Whitmore Lake to the family homestead that we live in now on Cook Road, and we put an addition on--I have a nice loft area that my husband built for all my sewing area. So, it's a part of the rest of the living space but it's away from so that I don't have to pick up and put anything away. Everything is out all the time, the sewing machine, the ironing board, the fabrics are all over and [PK hums approval.] I have weaving looms and I used to do spinning, and like I said, interested in all kinds of fiber art, so I have that all in one confined area now except when I pick it up and take it with me to another chair or something.

PK: You had said you had an interest in weaving--

MS: Yes.

PK: But you didn't--I didn't ask you about your weaving. Are you an active weaver?

MS: Well, I don't weave too much anymore. I like to--again it related to the quilting, I like to make things that are functional [PK hums approval.] and that we use every day and that's the way our home is kind of decorated, with hand woven rugs and [PK hums approval.] hand braided rugs and cross stitch and quilts and all the different fiber arts.

PK: And are you responsible for making all those things in your home?

MS: Yes.

PK: My goodness.

MS: If I want it, I make it usually. [PK hums approval.] And with the help of my husband, he's very good at wood working and repair and making whatever it is that I tell him that I need, and--

PK: Sounds like your hus--

MS: It's compatible.

PK: Sounds like he's quite supportive.

MS: Yes, he is. But I also support his golf habit, so [laughs.] it works--[PK laughs.]
both ways.

PK: When you were camping out all over the house with your quilt work, how did your family react?

MS: They were very accepting of it. It wasn't a problem.

PK: And how do they feel about where you're going with your work now?

MS: They like the quilts. I have one daughter who has started with quilt making herself, so I think that's great. The other daughter loves the quilts but she's not at all interested in doing any hand work whatsoever. The daughter that's making quilts is doing it all by hand too. She wouldn't think of putting a sewing machine to her quilt. Whether she'll ever change or not, I don't know, but [PK hums approval.] she is interested in quilting and is aware, my family is all aware of quilts and quilt patterns and my interest in quilting.

PK: There seems to be a very strong feeling about sewing machines and what they represent with quilts.

MS: It's another quick, it's another quick way of doing something and I think my interest has always been in doing things the old-fashioned way or the way things originated. Whether it's my husband working with tools or whether it's me in the kitchen or, you know, anything in the house uh we just seem to cherish the early methods that [PK hums approval.] our ancestors had. [PK hums approval.] And to think that they had to many times not only make quilts, but they had to weave the fabric to make their coverlets or whatever for warmth, is just amazing to me.

PK: Um hum. Do you have a quilt making role model?

MS: Oh, I think anyone that's a quilt maker is a role model because I think there's so many different types of quilts and different quilters and what they're interested in. I just admire all areas of quilting. I was just down to the world quilt show here in Lansing on Friday and totally amazed at the creativity that's coming out of quilters [PK hums approval.] or fiber artists, or whatever name you want to give them. [PK hums approval.] I admire all of them.

PK: Um hum. Do you subscribe to quilter journals or magazines and newsletters?

MS: I do get the Quilter's Newsletter [Magazine.]. I got the AQS [American Quilters Society.] magazine for many, many years and it just turned into a little bit more towards the artistic level than what I was interested in. So, I do take the Quilter's Newsletter [Magazine.] and I try to keep up with the new tools, so to speak, that the quilters are using. But I don't use most of them myself, so.

PK: But you're interested?

MS: I'm interested in them and, yeah. The rotary cutters and [PK hums approval.] I don't know what but there's all kinds of gadgets. It's just like in the kitchen, you know, there's [PK hums approval.] always a new gadget.

PK: Um hum. Do you continue to take classes?

MS: No, I haven't taken classes in years.

PK: Since you got started?

MS: I've only taken a couple of workshops, and again, I've taken them from people that I do admire. Jenny Beyer being one was an inspiration in how to work with the fabrics. And then I took one from Michael James on color and I enjoyed those two very much. I taught quilting myself when I lived at Whitmore Lake in the Farmington and Plymouth area, but again, I taught the traditional quilting, all done by hand. [PK hums approval.] And I enjoyed that a lot.

PK: What do you find most challenging about quilting, quilt making?

MS: Oh, it's putting the colors together and decided on balance of color in my quilt. Once I work through that it's just a puzzle to put together real quick, but it's putting those puzzle pieces out and getting them all to fit so that they're satisfying.

PK: Um hum. How do you lay out your quilt designs?

MS: Sometimes I sketch them on paper first and then piece a few blocks. Then I lay them out on the floor. I don't have a design wall, or I'd put them on a design wall. And I look at them for, sometimes weeks, maybe even months, before I start adding or thinking about what I want to do with them. It's not a hurry up process. I just take my time and play around with it. And sometimes almost a vision has to come. [PK hums approval.] And then something will just kind of click and [PK hums approval.] I start working on it and it falls into place.

PK: How many projects have you started at any given time?

MS: Well, I always have one in the making and one that's being quilted, and one waiting to be quilted, so I always have at least three. But I usually have a few stashes of fabric that my mind is thinking about what I'm going to do with it so altogether in my head I probably have six or eight projects [PK hums approval.] that I'm thinking about. Maybe that's why I have a hard time focusing on the one that I'm trying to finish, but--

PK: [laughs.] Do you like to purchase any particular line of fabric or do you--where do you shop?

MS: Country Stitches is my favorite. I used to drive up here to the Lansing/East Lansing store before they opened their shop in Jackson. I also like to go to Shipshewana to the fabrics down there. And wherever there's any little quilt shop. I like to support [PK hums approval.] each of them and talk with the quilt owners. They seem to each have a flavor of their own as far as the choices of fabrics in the shop. [PK hums approval.] Some are more country. Some are more vibrant and contemporary, and I buy good fabric and I love the Modas. [laughs.]

PK: Do you have a very large stash?

MS: No, not really. I buy 'em a quarter yarder. I tell people when I go in the shop that I'm just keep collecting because I like a lot of variety in my quilts in fabrics. [PK hums approval.] I'm, you know, this would be the least of what I would think about making now.

PK: Because of the lack of variety--

MS: Right.

PK: In fabrics?

MS: Even if I were to make a blue and white quilt, I would make a lot of white. I'd put a lot of whites in and a lot of blues in [PK hums approval.] just for variety because I've found after going to a lot of quilt shows that what holds my interest in a quilt is the variety in the fabrics as much as the design itself. And the more fabrics I look at and see, the longer I look at the quilt. And for me that makes it more meaningful if it holds your attention longer.

PK: Does the quilting interest you a great deal?

MS: I enjoy the quilting for the relaxation that it gives me.

PK: You don't find the design of the quilting as interesting as the design of the of the of the top?

MS: Well no. The design of the quilting is minimal. That's the last decision I make, and I never know until I get it in the hoop how I'm going to quilt it.

PK: I see.

MS: And it's usually all done with straight lines. I don't like curved lines.

PK: Oh, why is that?

MS: Probably the turning of the frame too much. [PK hums approval.] And with straight quilting I don't have to put any lines on the quilt or put any markings on it. [PK hums approval.] And I use tape, usually masking tape, three-quarter inch masking tape. And then sometimes the quarter-inch masking tape and do mostly parallel lines.

PK: Does that leave a residue on the surface?

MS: I don't leave it on there long enough to bother I don't think. At least I haven't noticed it.

PK: Are you a member of quilting groups or guilds?

MS: No. The closest to me would be Jackson and that's oh probably a forty-minute drive and it's at night and too many deer out at night. [laughs.] So, I just quilt on my own at home and try to seek out quilting shows, such as the one in Lansing this weekend, and there are a number of them around. I've gone down to the one at Sauder Village in Ohio I think it is. And I just seek out quilt shows.

PK: Do you have friends who are quilters?

MS: A few, not too many. Most of them are too busy, too busy. [PK hums approval.] Family and children's activities.

PK: What would you say is the most satisfaction that quilting gives you? What is it that you feel?

MS: I think it's the ability to design. After all the quilts that I've made and all the things that I do, I seem to get the most joy out of putting the colors together with designs and how to incorporate them into a quilt top, whether it's a small quilt or, you know, wall hanging or bed quilt. That seems to be the part I get the most joy from.

PK: Do you think there is a Michigan aesthetic for quilts around here?

MS: Explain to me what--

PK: Pardon me?

MS: What do you mean? Explain to me what you're--

PK: Do you think that there are characteristics that would let you visually pick out a Michigan quilt?

MS: I think the quilts in Michigan, like anywhere else, are influenced a great deal by the workshops that ladies go to and the guilds that they belong to, and how the shop owner might promote fabrics in her shop when she teaches classes. I go to South Carolina in the winter months, and I have some quilting friends down there and I think that the influence comes from whatever is visually presented to them at the time rather than a regional flavor in their quilts. [PK hums approval.] It has a lot to do with the fabrics that are being manufactured. [PK hums approval.] I'm really looking forward to the new fabrics that the Michigan Museum [PK hums approval.] reproductions are going to be from Michigan Museum quilts, and I think, depending on how they're promoted, like all other fabrics, whether they're Civil War fabrics or garden fabrics, it's dependent on the promotion of maybe the manufacturer or the pattern makers or quilt shops.

PK: What is dependent on that?

MS: However, they're presented while people are receptive to the Civil War quilts. The more they see about it, they see a line of fabrics, they say, 'Oh yes.' But they also have to have a lot of samples before them as to what they can do with them. [PK hums approval.] Or classes that teach novelty type quilts, such as the watercolor, is going to influence the people that take the class and the fabrics that they choose, of course [PK hums approval.] that's going to uh be most appropriate for that project.

PK: So, it's all quite a system--

MS: Yes.

PK: That you're describing.

MS: I think so. So many people say I'm not creative.

PK: You?

MS: No. They say that to me. They say, 'Oh I'm not creative like you are.' And I said, 'We all are creative.' We may not know it, or we may not know where or why but, you know, the creativity is there but you need somebody to bring it out of you and that's the purpose, I think, of classes, so they can learn to be creative. And it helps someone else can help to point them in a direction that shows them what their interests are.

PK: Do you think quilt study is an important area of research?

MS: I guess I must think so because I just spent $60 on books about quilt history, so-- [both laugh.]. I said, 'I just bought myself a birthday present,' but I am particularly interested in quilt history and--but I'm also interested in women in general and the history of the early days of settlement and what they thought of as far as their creativity in the quilting itself, because they had very few outlets for art or anything that was artistic. Everything was something that was, they, something they had to do to serve their family and to feed their family, clothe and warmth and all of that, and so I think in their quilting they were given the opportunity to be artistic if they chose to be. [PK hums approval.] And I'm very much interested in what and how they did in the early days.

PK: Is this your first acquisition of quilt history books or have you been building a library?

MS: No, I started with books with patterns, like most people. And pictures. I like pictures a lot. They inspire me and I like to look at how the colors balance in a quilt and why. When I see a quilt I like, I look at it and think why do I like it? [PK hums approval.] And it's usually the balance of color rather than the particular pattern. I can't remember a pattern, but I can remember where the colors were in a quilt. And so, my first books were mostly with lots of pictures and a few patterns. I soon got away from the patterns. I can draft my own patterns and I guess--

PK: I see.

MS: That's why patterns don't mean much to me.

PK: Do you invent your own patterns?

MS: Oh, pretty much. I think most quilters invent their own patterns. I think they're influenced by other quilts and patterns that they see but I think when they actually make a quilt, they put together what they like or what. I guess it depends again on how confident they are in their quilting.

PK: Do you have a particular palette that you like working with more?

MS: I love reds.

PK: Reds.

MS: Reds and greens and the country colors. The homespuns I like a lot. I'm not a pastel or floral person, so I have lots of dark colors in my fabrics. And I like the neutrals, the tans, the beiges, buttery colors. I think they add a lot of warmth to a quilt so I use those colors to give my quilts warmth, so they look old.

PK: The homespuns especially. Is being a quilter important to your sense of personal identity?

MS: Um.

PK: Is this a funny question?

MS: Yes, because I don't think of my--I mean I just am who I am. I don't think of quilting as being something I identify myself with but--

PK: Interesting.

MS: I guess people in the community know me as the quilt lady so [PK laughs.] it must have some meaning to someone else perhaps.

PK: So, you see it as something outward rather than an inward identity?

MS: I guess. I don't know. I haven't thought about that. It's about the only thing I guess I really identify with as far as something I can sit down and relax doing, but I can't sit and relax and do nothing, so quilting again is portable so it's a convenience also.

PK: We see where we are on time. We still have a little bit more time. I wanted to--I wanted to ask you more issues of quilt preservation. Are you involved in the quilt preservation movement?

MS: No, I haven't been and that's something that I did show an interest in this summer because I have a little extra time on my hands and I didn't have a local guild or group of ladies that quilted that was able to feed my mind with quilting, so I contacted Beth Donaldson at the Museum and came up for a volunteer day and helped her put sleeves on the quilts that are at the exhibit at the Museum now. However, I found at the end of the day the cost of parking might prohibit me from wanting to come and do much volunteer, as far as with her and being on campus. But I would like to do more volunteer with researching quilts in the rural area where I live [PK hums.] and seeing if I can't document some quilts in that area because I think I need to get in touch with people who are not necessarily quilters but have quilts in their family--

PK: I see.

MS: Historic quilts, such as like these are even older [PK hums.] and do some documentation and that way it'll be volunteering and preserving the history of quilts. [PK hums.] Our families aren't getting any younger and if I don't get to some of these quilts, I'm afraid that they're, the history of them is going to be long lost, so [PK hums.] that's about the extent of my working with preservation of quilts.

PK: It's a new interest--

MS: Right.

PK: For you.

MS: It is. Oh, it's always been an interest, but I never thought about how I could help I guess, and how I could preserve uh the history of quilting in the in the rural area. We like to think maybe that quilts, we've seen them all but when you talk to people, they'll tell you that oh, I have one at home that so and so made and, you know, they think of it, they don't have it out, they don't know who to talk to about it. And I think projects such as this, and maybe we could even do more in alerting people that there is a project where we're interested in knowing about their quilts and that the history can be recorded and so. Hopefully in magazine--er not magazines but in local communities through the historical societies and the quilting groups, we can do more to promote preservation of the history of our quilts.

PK: But that all actually rests on the assumption that it is important to preserve the history.

MS: Right.

PK: Do you think it is?

MS: Oh definitely!

PK: Why?

MS: I think anything about history is important. I had someone once say to me that every time someone dies, an ancestor, older, elderly person dies, we've lost a library of information. [PK hums approval.] And when you think about that, you think how true it is and how important it is to do the documentation in taping [PK hums approval.] of interviews [PK hums approval.] so that you, how we wish we had interviews on tape from a hundred years ago. Wouldn't that be wonderful?

PK: It would for me. [laughs.] What do you think makes a great quilt?

MS: I think a great quilt is in the eye of the beholder and that sounds simple, but I think if it holds your interest and if you enjoy looking at it, then it's a great quilt, whether anyone else enjoys looking at it. I think if you get enjoyment and satisfaction out of it, then it's a great quilt.

PK: What about great quilters? What makes great quilters?

MS: If they hold your interest. [both laugh.] And you enjoy their company for any length of time then they are a great quilter. [laughs.]

PK: Okay, so it's not about their quilts?

MS: Not necessarily, no.

PK: It's about who they are. Is there anything that you would like to add? We're almost out of time.

MS: I would like to add one thing.

PK: Sure.

MS: We live in an Amish area, and I talked with a lady a couple of weeks ago about Amish quilting, and she said in their community, I'm not sure what community is, but she said they don't make quilts, but they do quilting for hire. [PK hums approval.] And so, I'm looking forward to going back and having an interview with her. I'm not only looking forward to the interview, but I was really excited that she was so receptive [PK hums approval.] when I told her about the project [PK hums approval.] and she was receptive to talking to me and having me come back and get information from her about the quilting.

PK: That's wonderful.

MS: Because sometimes we think that they're not willing to have us talk with them maybe about some of these things that we do and so that's one of my newest interests and I look forward to doing that.

PK: Are you planning a particular kind of oral history project among Amish residents or are you interested right now in this particular informant?

MS: I'm just interested in this particular informant [PK hums approval.] right now. We'll see how it goes. If there's other people uh in the community that are interested in talking to me about their quilt making. She did mention to me that her mother-in-law who lives in Indiana does make quilts [PK hums approval.] again belonging to a different community [PK hums approval.] where quilts are made, and I'll just take it as far as it goes. We'll see.

PK: It sounds line a new challenge.

MS: I'm interested in the challenge that the Amish are still trying to achieve today because I think it's very admirable, but they do, they live the way they live in a in a society that is so technology minded. [PK hums approval.] And, of course, they still live near us and that's, I'm interested in that. [PK hums approval.] Once in a while a horse and buggy will go down the road in front of the house and I'm just totally amazed.

PK: I live in a Pennsylvania area where there are a lot of Amish families also so I understand what you're saying. Is there anything else I can ask you or that you'd like to include?

MS: I think we've pretty much covered it.

PK: Do you know where you're headed with quilting next?

MS: Simply relaxation and just well, I still have projects ahead of me, you know, and waiting at home to be finished, so as long as my hands hold out. You know, you do get some little joints that don't want to work quite as well sometimes as you'd like, so I'll just keep at it. I don't have any particular goal. I just love looking forward to all the new fabrics that come out and particularly the new ones that will be out with the Museum reproductions.

PK: Oh, I'll look forward to that. Thank you very much.

MS: Thank you.

PK: Thank you. We're concluding our interview for the Quilters' S.O.S. [- Save Our Stories.] project. It is 2:45 and I thank you very much for your time.

MS: Thank you.

[tape ends.]


“Mary Lee Smith,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024,