Mary Field




Mary Field




Mary Field


Alice Helms

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Sandra Anne Frazier


Asheville, NC


Alice Helms


Alice Helms (AH): My name is Alice Helms. Today is November 3, 2008. I'm conducting an interview with Mary Field for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. We're at my house in Asheville, North Carolina and it is 1:35 [p.m.]. Mary, tell me about the quilt you brought today.

Mary Field (MF): Well, this quilt was made by my great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Bloom Cotherman. She made it for her youngest daughter, Emma, who was my great-grandmother. Emma was married January 1, 1882, so I'm assuming the quilt was made in 1881. Elizabeth made indigo and white quilts for all three of her children - Alice, George and Emma. Alice had one child who predeceased her. George settled Alice's estate. George had one child who died as a teenager and he had kept his quilt and when he got Alice's quilt, at some point he decided the three quilts should stay together so they were all given to my grandmother and grandma kept them for a while. I did not know they existed for a long time. They eventually went to my youngest aunt, who is now 85, and somewhere along about the time she was 80. Since she had no children, she decided I was the quilter in the family and so I should have these quilts. I think it's just remarkable that a man should have decided, and had valued these quilts that much, that he would have kept the three together. So since I'm a quilter, I have all three of these indigo and white quilts which I just love. This one is the nicest of the three and in the best condition. The others are in pretty good condition but one of the indigo prints that appeared in both of those quilts faded to gray. It was not a stable dye. And so they aren't as pretty and as nice as this one is. And they've been kept very nicely, all of them. I really enjoy them.

The pattern on this one is the prettiest pattern, Hearts and Gizzards. Although I think perhaps the family called it Robbing Peter to Pay Paul, but when I looked it up in the books, it's called Hearts and Gizzards. Of course, being that old, it's all cotton and the batting I'm sure is cotton. I'm not sure it's ever been washed; it doesn't look like it has been. She always did diagonal lines in the quilting and sometimes they'll be double, in some places even triple lines. She always did diagonal lines. I feel very honored to be the one to have the family quilts although I think it was just because they didn't know what else to do with them [laughs.] that I got them. I've used it from time to time as a teaching tool, shared it with other quilters who just love old quilts. Otherwise it resides wrapped up in an old sheet in a dresser drawer. I really don't have a place to display it. I don't know what I'm going to do with it, what happens to it when I'm gone. There really isn't anyone in the family that I really think would appreciate it. My son would probably appreciate it but his wife probably would not. She isn't enamored with old things. So what I suspect I will do is see that it's given to the Winnebago Minnesota Area Museum where the family, my mother's family, settled and the family has been very instrumental is setting up this little museum. And I suspect that's where these three quilts need to reside.

AH: Great idea. So, the other two quilts, are they the same pattern?

MF: No. One I think they called Road to California and I can't remember what the other one is. They're very geometric, much more than this one. This has the curves.

AH: Now would indigo fabric have been something that was used a lot at that time?

MF: Probably. Mother always referred to these three quilts as those 'ugly Dutch quilts.' The Cothermans were Pennsylvania Dutch. Mother was of the depression era quilts where everything was pastel. So the indigo and white to her were ugly quilts and I just love them. I've always, before I even knew these existed they were among my favorites.

AH: The blue color is so bright and vibrant.

MF: It is on this one.

AH: Not faded at all.

MF: Not like the others. It's really strange. The others--Elizabeth used two indigo and white prints, both prints appear in both of the other two quilts and the one print faded to gray, just an unstable dye, and the other is as bright as this. So it really makes it look strange because there's no rhyme nor reason where the prints appear, they're just scattered.

AH: Now Mary, I'm wondering why you chose this quilt to bring, out of all the quilts you've made or anyone in your family's made, why this one today?

MF: I just think the story is rather unique and it's kind of a special quilt.

AH: It sure is.

MF: And I feel quite honored to be in possession of these three quilts that my great-great-grandmother made.

AH: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking. When did you start making quilts and who taught you?

MF: I've always loved quilts and when my daughter decided, about twenty-five years ago, that she was going to get married, I thought, 'Well, I'll have to make a quilt for her.' Hadn't had any lessons. Made all the mistakes in the book. After I got the top pieced on that, we were living in Florida at the time and it was so hot, I didn't think I'd ever get it quilted until we moved here to Asheville. I knew I'd made a lot of mistakes so then I went and took a quilting class at a local quilt shop to at least learn the basics and since then I've taken many workshops and classes and hopefully I've improved.

AH: Does your daughter still have the quilt?

MF: Yes, she does. It's a little faded (it's quite faded), but she still has it. It's been well used.

AH: Oh that's good.

AH: So, when you were growing up did your mother quilt or your grandmother?

MF: Mother started a quilt the summer before she was married and she hired it quilted for her fiftieth wedding anniversary. [laughs.] No one else in the family really quilts.

AH: But you grew up seeing these quilts.

MF: Well, mother had quite a few family quilts, and there were always family quilts in Minnesota at the family farm, on the beds there.

AH: I was going to ask you what your first quilt memory is.

MF: Well, probably my Sunbonnet Sue quilt that my great-grandmother made for me when I was born. She did the top and hired it quilted. She was no longer actually quilting by then. I still have it.

AH: Is it a crib size quilt?

MF: No, it's bigger than a crib-size. It's twin bed-size or close to twin bed-size. Not big enough to use as a bedspread, it's more like a blanket size.

AH: So was it special to you when you were small?

MF: It was just there. [laughs.]

AH: How many hours a week do you quilt, Mary?

AF: That varies greatly. When I'm teaching I put in more hours than I would otherwise. I'd say probably anywhere between six and twenty. I find I can't keep at it as long as I used to, for any period of time. Sometimes I used to quilt all day but I can't do that any more.

AH: So, you've been quilting about twenty-five years.

MF: About that.

AH: And I know you're also a quilt teacher.

MF: Yes.

AH: So when did that come into your quilting story - teaching?

MF: Really not until about eighteen years ago. I started teaching at AB Tech [Asheville-Buncombe Community Technical College.] in Continuing Education and then I gave that up when family demands with four elderly parents all living elsewhere. I couldn't commit to that for eight weeks at a time, so I gave that up. Now I teach at College for Seniors [at the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement at the University of North Carolina - Asheville.] periodically.

AH: And what do you teach, specifically?

MF: Mostly basic quilting, piecing or short appliqué classes [inaudible.]

AH: Now, so you make quilts yourself, you teach quilting, have taught, and continue to occasionally teach quilting. Do I remember that you had a quilting business? A quilt store?

MF: I had a fabric store.

AH: A fabric store.

MF: It wasn't a quilt store.

AH: Okay. So that was before there were a lot of quilt stores out there. And just general purpose fabric stores.

MF: Yes. Pretty much so. I did work at a quilting store when we lived in Florida, before we moved here.

AH: So when did you have the fabric store?

MF: I left there about twenty-five years ago. And I was involved for about eleven years. So it was just when quilting was really getting popular and I certainly helped plan a lot of quilts from the fabric we had and couldn't understand why people wanted 100% cotton [laughs.] and didn't want a blend when it was the perfect color or perfect pattern, or whatever, until I started quilting myself [laughs.] and then I knew they weren't just purists, there was a real reason for wanting 100% cotton.

AH: So that was an interesting time to have a fabric shop.

MF: Sure it was.

AH: People were making that transition to quilting.

MF: Getting out of polyester double knits and into natural fibers, etc. [laughs.]

AH: Yes, that was a big change. So, in addition to that, you've also been active in various quilting groups.

MF: Yes.

AH: Why don't you tell me about that - what quilting groups you're in.

MF: Since we moved here, I've belonged of course to the Asheville Quilt Guild and there's a group that meets every week that is called Beaucatchers Quilters after our Beaucatcher Mountain and I've been doing that for almost twenty years now. That group predates the guild; the guild grew out of that group. And then there's a group of former students that meets on Monday afternoons, just friends that get together and quilt, I usually do that. That's about it.

AH: That's a lot.

MF: That's enough. [laughs.]

AH: So what do you typically do in these smaller groups? What are people doing?

MF: They're working on their own projects. Occasionally we'll get together and do a special project for a member who needs some extra attention - leaving or moving, the typical type things. But most of the time we just work on our own projects. And share. Always share.

AH: Mary, what do you enjoy most about quilting? What aspect of quilting?

MF: I like the hand work. I piece by hand, I appliqué by hand, I quilt by hand, for the most part. I just find it very relaxing and very satisfying. Doesn't mean I don't appreciate the machine work - I do. And sometimes I wish I enjoyed it more because I could certainly produce more if I used the sewing machine but I just thoroughly enjoy the hand work.

AH: And what do you like least about making quilts?

MF: I don't know if there's anything I really don't like. When it comes to the binding, most people say, 'Oh, I hate putting on the binding.' I love it, that's the end. [laughs.]

AH: Have you ever used quilts or quilting to get though a difficult time?

MF: Not really. It seems like the few difficult times that I've had, I have been so busy I haven't had time to even think about quilting. When my mother-in-law was in the nursing home and she would doze off when I'd be sitting there talking to her, I did sit there and hand piece but it was not because it was such a difficult time, it just occupied my time, kept me busy.

AH: Do you ever enter your quilts into competitions?

MF: I do. Mostly just the Asheville Quilt Show. When I finally get something finished, I'll show it there.

AH: Have you ever won any awards or ribbons?

MF: I have, in the Asheville Show. Some first place and honorable mentions and so on.

AH: First place.

MF: Just one. [laughs.]

AH: Which quilt?

MF: Probably not one you're familiar with. It's a takeoff on Grandmother's Flower Garden and includes 600 stars, little stars, and it's done in Depression era colors.

AH: How long ago was that?

MF: Probably close to ten years ago, maybe a little longer.

AH: And did that spur you on to bigger and better quilts?

MF: Not really. [laughs.] Just different.

AH: Have you ever given quilts as gifts?

MF: I have. My grandchildren, my son, my daughter.

AH: Do they still have the quilts?

MF: Oh yes.

AH: Do they appreciate all the work that goes into them?

MF: I know my son does. I'm not sure that the grandkids do so much. I do know that my grandson really likes his quilt. It has baseball figures on it. He was so much into baseball at the time I made it for him he had to take it for show and tell at school. My daughter has preserved that one quite well actually. [laughs.]

AH: Did you say your daughter quilts?

MF: No.

AH: No interest?

MF: No. She doesn't do any handwork at all.

AH: That's interesting.

MF: She works full time and she's very busy. It's just not her thing, which is fine. She cooks better than I do [laughs.]

AH: And how about your grandchildren? Have any of them shown any interest in quilting?

MF: No. My granddaughter went with me when I picked out the fabric for her big quilt. She didn't have that much interest beyond colors.

AH: Well, okay.

MF: That's all right.

AH: What do you think makes a great quilt?

MF: Well, always design and workmanship and color. Doesn't matter to me whether it's hand done or done on the machine, the sewing machine. I do have a bit of a problem with the longarms that you just program and walk off and fix dinner. The hand guided ones take a lot of skill and I appreciate that, but I have a problem with the others. I just don't feel like they are quite in the same category as other machine work.

AH: What makes a quilt artistically powerful?

MF: Well, of course the visual impact is dependent on color and contrast and design, balance - all the usual design elements that you think of.

AH: What do you think makes a quilt appropriate for a museum?

MF: Its uniqueness. Perhaps its historical significance. Excellence in workmanship. Although it doesn't have to be excellent workmanship if other aspects are [inaudible.] It might be something that reflects a culture of a certain group or [inaudible.]

AH: What do you think makes a great quilter?

MF: Somebody with a real passion for it. They don't have to have great workmanship, as far as I'm concerned, if they just love the art of quilting, love quilts, and enjoy what they're doing, then to me they're a great quilter.

AH: And you've known a lot of great quilters?

MF: Yes. Some do wonderful work and some really don't. [laughs.] But they love what they're doing and to me, that's important. It's an expression of what they like to do, their creativity, what's satisfying for them and to me they're great quilters.

AH: Now over the years you've had an opportunity to meet a lot of great quilters probably; great quilt teachers, you've probably read a lot of books by great quilt writers. Is there anyone who comes to mind who really stands out in your memory, in that category of greatness?

MF: Of course, Caryl Fallert's work is just incredible. I know I could never achieve anything like that so I really admire her work. Jinny Beyer is a hand piecer, a hand quilter and she has contributed so much to the art of quilting. I really admire her work. Not only that, she's a good teacher and a great lecturer. I just think she's great. I can't think who else. There are a number out there. I just got back from [the International Quilt Festival in.] Houston [Texas.] and saw so many quilts. That's about it I guess.

AH: I'm curious about Houston. Was there anything you saw there that kind of struck your fancy? Any new trends or new ways of doing things? Anything?

MF: New trends. Other than so much of it is done on the longarm machine now. The things I enjoyed the most. For the first time, the D.A.R. [Daughters of the American Revolution.] Museum released some of their quilts for exhibit outside of their confines and they had a wonderful collection of 1800's, wonderful quilts and in most cases, just exquisite workmanship. I really enjoyed that. And they had one exhibit of political quilts that were bold and brash and [laughs.] great. I enjoyed those.

AH: Currently made quilts?

MF: Yes. Yes. Those were new.

AH: That's fun.

MF: Within say, the last five to ten years. .Those were fun. Some people didn't appreciate them, but I enjoyed the humor. [laughs.]

AH: Well, I think we've covered the area of machine quilting, hand quilting and longarm quilting.

MF: Yes, probably. [laughs.]

AH: Why is quiltmaking important to your life?

MF: Well, for two reasons. It's not only a creative outlet, but I have made so many friends through quilting. Close friends. Probably over fifty per cent of my closest friends are other quilters. And there's just a sharing and a deep friendship that comes with a shared art form like this and it's just a very big part of my life.

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

MF: I do mostly traditional things and I think that's probably reflective of the heritage of Western North Carolina. My Baltimore Album quilt in fact included a few things that are typical of this area. An oak tree and bears and the apple tree and a few things that reflected this area, otherwise it was pretty traditional. But I incorporated some things that were special.

AH: And how long have you lived in this area?

MF: It's almost twenty years. Just shy of twenty years.

AH: So, most of your quilting life?

MF: Yes.

AH: You've been here?

MF: Yes. I've been here.

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

MF: Well it has certainly become a big industry. A number of years ago when they passed the million dollar mark for sales as a quilting industry, which was certainly reflected in Houston, I think, with all of the vendors there. We seem to equate it with the American heritage. It didn't originate here but we have developed it so that many people around the world think of it as an American art form or craft, whatever you want to call it. You look at the quilts that the Japanese are making and taking the prizes, their workmanship and color sense and combination of prints, etc. is just outstanding. Every national show you go to, they are very, very prominent and it's great to see how the art form has spread. It doesn't matter whether it's Alaska, or Japan or England or Denmark or wherever, people are entering shows and redefining the art form. It's interesting to see how it's done. I can remember when the first Japanese quilts came to the A.Q.S. [American Quilter's Society Annual Quilt Show & Contest.] show and everybody was just flabbergasted. [laughs.] For one reason, they didn't submit entry forms, they just sent them. They didn't know the protocol. That was really not that long ago, it's been since we've lived here. Those were the first that we were really aware of, on an international basis.

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

MF: Well, I think for a lot of women, it was the only way that they could find expression for their creative instincts. They were locked in to cleaning and cooking and darning and doing everything they had to do for survival and quilts have been a release for people in that situation. Of course, over the years, they've done political quilts and suffrage quilts, etc. to reflect their thinking. Those quilts are few and far between but they were there and I think they've been important.

AH: How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future?

MF: Well, I think people are more aware of what you need to do to preserve a quilt now than they were. Many times they'd put them in a cedar chest and let them rot but I think people are much more aware and they're also documenting their quilts and labeling their quilts so that people know about dates and where they come from, etc. I also think probably they'll survive better in modern day homes where there aren't the extremes of temperature and humidity, etc. People used to put them in the attic [laughs.] in the off season when they weren't using them. Or, you know when Grandma died they put them in a trunk in the attic or something and they got crisp from the heat and didn't survive and I think people are a little more aware of the value and also houses are just different, you don't do things like that. I think that's an important part of preserving their heritage.

AH: Okay Mary. Well, we're coming to the end of the interview but did you have anything else you wanted to add?

MF: Not really. I've been very fortunate that my family has been supportive of my endeavors. My husband even occasionally makes a suggestion if I solicit it. [laughs.] He doesn't say, 'Yuck.' but if I say, 'Which do you like better?' he will make a contribution. And he does have a good eye so it's helpful to me and the family tolerates what I do. My mother took an interest when she was alive. And my mother-in-law, when she was living, got interested and she even made a couple of quilts because I was quilting.

AH: So she started quilting late in life?

MF: Oh, very. Yes. She was well into her seventies before she ever started quilting and she only made two or three and they weren't terribly exciting but she enjoyed it. She quilted with a friend and that was nice for her.

AH: That's great. Okay. Well, I think we're finished Mary. This will conclude our interview. It is now 2:10. Thank you, Mary.

MF: You're very welcome.


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