Mariann Simmons




Mariann Simmons




Mariann Simmons


Le Rowell

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

A Friend of the Quilt Alliance


Harrisonburg, Virginia


Evelyn Naranjo


Le Rowell (LR): This is Le Rowell and today's date is April 26, 2003. It is12 noon and I am conducting an interview with Mariann Simmons for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories, a project for the Alliance for American Quilts and we are in the Virginia Quilt Museum in Harrisonburg, Virginia so, Mariann, welcome.

Mariann Simmons (MS): Thank you

LR: It is nice to have you here. Tell me about this quilt you brought today.

MS: It was made by my grandmother when I was born. She was my inspiration for quilting and I just always enjoyed the quilt. It's a Dutch girl, probably most of you would know the name as Sunbonnet Sue but in the region in West Virginia where she lived it was commonly known as The Dutch Girl and I learned that from another research project.

LR: And what was that project?

MS: Fawn Valentine gave a lecture on the West Virginia research project. She brought up the fact that this was known as The Dutch Girl. And I'd always wondered why we called it that but in every book when I saw the picture it was always labeled as Sunbonnet Sue.

LR: Do you know why it was called Dutch Girl?

MS: I'm thinking that probably my grandmother was of German origin so I'm thinking there was something maybe in the area of German Dutch ancestry or settling people back in the early days. Perhaps it was some Dutch people that made the quilt at that time. I really don't know for sure.

LR: What about the fabrics in the quilt?

MS: They were just scraps. Everything that she did during her life was made from scraps of clothing that were left over from other garments that her daughters had made and they always gave her the scraps. And she would make quilts for us.

LR: Was she an avid quilt maker?

MS: Yes, yes. She had three daughters and six granddaughters and whenever she made a quilt for one person she made others alike for everybody.

LR: So everyone had the same quilt?

MS: Yes

LR: Interesting

MS: And I have probably seven or eight quilts that she made.

LR: What do you do with them?

MS: I have them stored in a pie safe.

LR: Which is?

MS: It's an antique wooden piece with tins that usually had ornate decorative designs for ventilation.

LR: But you don't use them?

MS: I haven't for some time. This one obviously has had a lot of use, but I have since learned the value of taking care of them and not using them. So anyway they are well worn and I have had them all washed in a machine and I don't really use them.

LR: Washed in a washing machine?

MS: Yes. That's what she did. She used them and washed them in a washing machine and hung them on a line to dry.

LR: Interesting. That's interesting. So how did this quilt inspire your interest in quilting?

MS: I don't know that it was so much the quilt as it was my grandmother. Because from the time I was maybe about five I can remember going up to the attic to the boxes of scraps and helping her pick out fabrics and she would have me draw around the templates. In fact I also have with me the templates that she used. This is another one that she had cut out just shortly before she died. They are the pattern pieces.

LR: Wow

MS: Yes.

LR: Just cut out of paper.

MS: Yes, but since it was appliqué, it wasn't as crucial to be exacting although her pieced ones were not real exacting either from the cardboard, paper templates that she used.

LR: How did she appliqué? By hand or machine?

MS: Oh everything that she did was by hand.

LR: All the piecing?

MS: Yes. Everything was by hand.

LR: And these pieces of fabric that you brought?

MS: These are ones that she had cut out. I don't know, maybe they came from family members. I remember I had had a dress out of that when I was a child and I think most of these came from her daughter who lived in Indiana who was also a quilter. She cut them out.

LR: Do you plan to do something with them?

MS: At some point I will. [laugh.] I just keep looking at them.

LR: So tell me now about your interest in quilt making. How did you get started? With your grandmother obviously, but then when did you start.

MS: Probably about early '70's. Really before the quilting revival started. When my children were little they for some reason had seen these quilts and they wanted quilts for their beds. So I decided that I would try to make a quilt. I had never had any instruction, but I bought some patterns and sort of went from there and then probably in the late '70's we moved to Wisconsin and there was a lot of quilting going on up there. There were some large shops that had a lot of instruction, a lot of good teachers. And that is when I got into quilting.

LR: But you started where, here in Virginia?

MS: Well I was born in West Virginia. It really started with my grandmother doing some things. And then I guess when I really made my first quilt I was in Ohio.

LR: How did you learn to quilt?

MS: Very poorly. [laugh.] The first quilt that I can really remember probably, well I had done some piecing, but as far as actually making a quilt and finishing it, it was a pattern I had gotten out of either Mc Calls or Simplicity, one of the pattern books and I didn't know any better, but they had you put your design down and satin stitch through all the layers. And of course this was just horrid in addition to the polyester cotton blend fabric they were dreadful, but the girls still have them today. And when I think back on that, looking at them, how I ever got them together to even come close to laying flat or being a rectangle is beyond me.

LR: So, how did you do that? How did you learn to make it lie flat and put it together properly?

MS: I started taking some classes when we moved to Wisconsin. There were so many teachers in the area and I learned a lot right there.

LR: What kinds of things did you learn from them that really made a difference?

MS: Accuracy does really count. Whether it is in your cutting or your sewing or your pressing, whatever, you've got to be careful and do it correctly or things can just go amiss before you know it. And while you think, 'So this seems a little bit more than a quarter of an inch it doesn't seem like much', but when you spread that across the surface of the quilt and perhaps hundreds of pieces, it can grow on you in a hurry. The first thing you know the points don't match and there you are.

LR: You have gone on to be a teacher, are you not?

MS: I teach.

LR: And what do you teach and where?

MS: I teach quilting classes out at Patchwork Plus

LR: Which is where?

MS: The local fabric store in Dayton. [Virginia.] And I teach from appliqué to some free form quilting. I do the piecing to whatever pattern, styles we decide to do. We have a teacher's meeting and you bring in ideas of what we want to teach and then each of us decides what projects and we set them on the calendar.

LR: Machine piecing or hand piecing? Does it make a difference?

MS: For me it is machine only from start to finish.

LR: Did you learn on machine?

MS: Yes, yes. I just always, I guess I started out making garments when I was a teenager so I've always used a sewing machine and really enjoy the machine.

LR: Does that also include the quilting? Do you do machine quilting?

MS: Yes, I do very little hand quilting. While I like it, I'm not good at it because I don't do enough of it to get in practice and it is very slow and usually I am needing class samples or whatever and I'm in a hurry to get things done.

LR: If you are looking at a quilt though to judge it does it make a difference whether it is machine?

MS: Actually no, but I prefer to see machine quilted when judged separately from hand quilted ones.

LR: Why?

MS: They're both very difficult tasks to do. They each take a tremendous amount of skill that is totally different. A lot of people when machine quilting first came out thought, 'Oh that is just a quilt that is going to be done on a machine.' But when you look at some of the wonderful ones that are out there, at the eye hand coordination in getting the stitches regular and not destroying the quilt, it is a true talent just as much as hand quilting is. I have nothing against it if it is done well. In judging I like to see them separate because it is just two different skills. In teaching machine quilting, I find that it is interesting because the people who do beautiful hand quilting get so frustrated because they just don't have that coordination. And it's developed. I see some of Caryl Bryer Fallert's or John Flynn's, some of the major quilters that do machine quilting and it is beautiful. There is nothing wrong with it if it is done well and in the proper perspective.

LR: Have you done any judging?

MS: No, I haven't.

LR: What do you find most pleasing about quilting?

MS: I love to see the colors go together and the design emerge. That to me is what makes it. You know, the accuracy, that is a challenge to see if I can get it with its points perfect and its intersections matching, but I really like looking at the fabric and the color selections and picking it out and seeing that go together.

LR: How do you go about your color selection?

MS: I generally will pick a focus fabric which has a lot of colors in it and then I just randomly pick some colors that are in it that I like. A lot of people study color. I think it is one of those things you either have it or you don't. When I teach some of my students will come in and say I was at the fabric shop three or four hours trying to put this together. And to me, if you are there more than half an hour, go home and come back another day. Because if you keep second guessing, 'Do I like this color with it? Is it too dark?' You'll never be pleased with it. Just go in and pick something. Let your heart tell you, 'This is what I like.'

LR: What do you not enjoy about quiltmaking?

MS: That part I don't enjoy is marking the quilt top for quilting. I just find that very tedious and very boring. Using that template and marking, I just don't like it. I just want to get it done. I want to get at it.

LR: How do you mark?

MS: Sometimes I will use a stencil and a chalk pencil, depending on the design. A lot of my work I do in the ditch or just around the pieces and I am getting more into free form machine quilting, just letting something go over the surface and not any true design.

LR: The creative process. [laugh.]

MS: Yes. I quilt a lot with the variegated threads that are now on the market. I think that they are pretty just to go over things so long as it doesn't distract from the quilt. Just whatever comes to you, I think.

LR: How do you balance your quilting activities with your family responsibilities?

MS: Probably not well. [laugh.] I would quilt forever. Cleanliness of my house tends to go. I don't like clutter, but dust doesn't bother me. It'll be there when I get around to doing it. If there is a quilt in there in the process, you'll find me doing that. That's what I really enjoy. It's worked pretty well. I get things done. We've never missed a meal and there is always clean clothes to wear. So it's working. If it needs to be done then I do it. I don't dwell, I am not obsessed that everything has to be spotless before I can sit down at the sewing machine.

LR: So your family handles your profession pretty well?

MS: Yes

LR: Are supportive.

MS: Very supportive. Very.

LR: What do you think makes a great quilt?

MS: Probably a balanced design and good colors and done well. If you have a design that doesn't fit the space or it doesn't flow well I think it's got to be proportionate and going together. I like everything but I guess I really go for traditional patchwork. I like some of the art quilts although I really don't do that type of work. I am not an artistic type person as far as drawing and that sort of thing. I follow a pattern very well.

LR: But you certainly reached an artistic level in your random machine quilting you were talking about.

MS: Yes. That I do, but that is sort of in the background. You don't really notice that as much as you do what it is on.

LR: What would make a quilt appropriate for a museum collection?

MS: I think the uniqueness of it. Is it relevant to the area? I don't want to say you need a quilt that is in pristine condition. I think there is a range in there. I mean you don't want one that is falling apart, but when people say museum quality I think they think it has to be this old quilt that is just perfection and I think it is a lot more than that. Is it the maker who has something to do with it or I think is it relevant to the area, or is it a unique quilt you've never seen before. I think that is more important than the true condition of the quilt. I always like to see a variety of quilts that are well done. It doesn't have to be an eighteen hundreds quilt that has never been out of the box. You like to see things that have been loved.

LR: What makes a great quilter?

MS: I think you've got to have your heart into it and be devoted to it and worked to the point where your work is great. I don't know that their work is always exceptional, but I just think they have a good balance of things and I think they are able to convey what they want to say with their quilts.

LR: How do these supposedly great quilters learn the art of quilting? Especially how to design a pattern or to choose fabrics? How do you do that?

MS: I think a lot of them have an art background. Particularly when you are getting into art quilts. And you know, they've got to draw and they've got to know proportion, and here, I think, is where the color study can often come into play because they do have a good sense of color. I think most of them are able to bring it all together. I do know there are times that because you can make a good quilt doesn't make you a good designer. I have seen some patterns that have been by great quilters and I really didn't care for them. They really couldn't convey their directions through. Because you can do it doesn't mean you can teach it. Some of the written directions out there are dreadful and the quilts are beautiful. [laugh.] If they would just draw it and then hand it to somebody else they would be well off, you know, to have somebody else to do the mechanics of it.

LR: Have you done any, created any patterns for teaching?

MS: No, I haven't. I barely stick to the ones that are out there. There are so many wonderful ones that are out there that I just don't know what I could add to it.

LR: What are some of your favorites in the way of patterns?

MS: The one that I can make day in and day out is feathered stars. I can just make those forever. I just love it. It only uses three to four or five colors. It is a very repetitious pattern, but getting all those little points is just the greatest challenge in the world and I just love doing it. In fact I had a class last winter to a noted designer to learn to draft them, so now I can draft them and make as many little feathers and sizes and variations as I want to.

LR: Do you use the paper piecing method?

MS: Very little. I like it. There are times that there are some pieces that you would have to cut umpteen templates to get it together and I don't know how accurate it would be in the end. And I think for some of those intricate patterns with odd shapes, foundation piecing is wonderful but as rule, I am not a big foundation piecer.

LR: You're the expert on the machine.

MS: I don't know about expert, but I like it.

LR: That makes it all worthwhile. Is quilting art or craft?

MS: I think it is a bit of both. I think it is an art form but I think it is considered a craft to many people simply because it is making something and probably because it is not a hundred per cent essential that we make them. You can go purchase one. You can buy a blanket. There are alternatives and I think that is where a lot of people decide it is a craft, but it is very much an art.

LR: You mentioned in the quick questions that you collect quilts and do you sell them, or do you do both?

MS: The only selling that I do are some things I have made. I don't do it for strict income. It is just excess pieces and it is just a way to share them with others, your house can only handle so many. A lot of the ones I do, I like doing the styles and colors, but they don't fit into my home so we have to do something with them. We do collect some quilts. We have purchased a few. Not many, but I have some from my husband's family, probably from the 18 hundreds, that kind of thing that we collect.

LR: But what have you purchased?

MS: We've purchased a few. My husband has purchased a few at auction. We have about 8 or 10 or so, but they are not in good shape. It's just things that we liked the design, probably not historical, or very collectible, but just pieces we've liked for whatever reason. Just fun.

LR: You've exhibited quilts?

MS: Yes, we have a show through our guild here.

LR: Which guild?

MS: The Shenandoah Valley Quilter's Guild and I usually have some entries in that, and they've also used a few of my pieces here at the Virginia Quilt Museum, various displays.

LR: Have you won awards?

MS: Though our quilt guild it is all Viewer's Choice, so it is not judged, but yes, I have won some Viewer's Choice Awards in various categories from dolls to bed quilts to garments to everything in between.

LR: What kinds of garments?

MS: Mainly vests and jackets. I like patchwork jackets. I think they're functional and pretty.

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

MS: I think they're important. I think it is a tradition that went back to our ancestors from the settling pioneers that were here. It is a way of keeping warm and they did it because they had to. We carry on that tradition today although I don't think it is necessary that we make them. There are other means of providing bedcovers that keep us warm, but I think it carries on a good tradition. We enjoy it and there are just a lot of different styles. It changes through time. There is a lot that can be said through quilts. The family style to the history to your color preferences.

LR: In what ways do quilts have special meaning for women's history in our country?

MS: I'm not sure about that one. You know, we read about some of the women in the Civil War, there were blocks named for different women and different ones who have done quilting just as a means of providing for their families.

LR: You've been involved in a quilt history preservation?

MS: I've worked with the museum here for a few of the documentations that we have done.

LR: What kinds of documentations?

MS: When the Museum [Virginia Quilt Museum.] did the Mary Etter collection I helped with that one. And a couple of other times that I have been working here that quilts have come in, I have helped document.

LR: How do you think we can preserve quilts for the future here in America?

MS: I think more information has to be gotten out to the general public on how to take care of them. I get so upset. I go to a ballgame, and they are spread out on the ground. Maybe the quilt came from China, and I don't mind it being put on the ground, but I just don't think a lot of young people realize what they have and know to take care of it or even care to take care of it as far as the quilt goes. Somebody in the family has passed away and they are cleaning out the attic and they find these quilts and they don't take care of them because they just don't know. I don't know how to get out to the public to inform them what to do, but I really think there should be something done in that area so that when people come across these quilts, they are aware of what they have.

LR: How do we encourage quilt making in young people?

MS: Well, I've got my ten-year-old granddaughter quilting.

LR: Tell me about it!

MS: Well, she's always at the house and she'd stand and watch me and about a year ago she wanted to learn how to quilt, and I said 'Fine.' And so, we started. I had bought some little books. And the first thing I did was start her on the sewing machine. She doesn't do anything by hand either. And we just learned to sew on the machine without thread, you know, just follow some fun designs, even some shapes out of a coloring book, you know, to get them to learn control and she had no problem with that. And so, we started on some foundation piecing, and this is one area I think it's wonderful because children can get great accuracy and they're not discouraged. And with that, of course, she had to learn how to use a rotary cutter. And she did that okay. Of course, then she had to learn how to press, so I handed her the iron. And people just thought I must have been nuts to do this. But she just loves it and that's her biggest thing to come out to my house and she can sew.

LR: So, what kinds of things is she working on?

MS: Right now, she is at the stage where she has a short attention span. So, we are making a series of little blocks and I think at some point we will probably put them all together because they're all about the same size. And that way she's at the house for a couple of hours. You know, she can make a piece or work on a piece without being discouraged that it is taking forever to get this done. She really enjoys it, and we buy her quilt books all the time. I had my machine over here and she has her machine over there and we just sew away.

LR: So, she has her in-house teacher?

MS: Yes.

LR: Are you aware of any quilting activities in the schools? Has she been exposed to any quilting activities in her school, for example?

MS: Yes. Last year her teacher found out that I taught quilting, so I went in there to her classroom one day. And our Guild, there is one thing about the Shenandoah Quilters does do is that we do have a program that we go into the school if they as us to come and we vary the program depending to the age levels, the students and what the teacher wants and the length of the program. Her teacher had done some quilting with them, some little basic things, and then I went in and showed them some different styles and things you could do with patterns and took a lot of samples and things that I had made, and I talked to them one afternoon and they went on and worked on some other things on their own.

LR: For boys and girls?

MS: Yes, and that's one thing. I find that the boys are the ones that are really interested. And for the most part, do a better job.

LR: Really!

MS: Yes. I did a summer program with a school with an enrichment program. It was third to fifth graders. The girls, many of them were interested, because a couple of their mothers were quilters, but some of them just took great big stitches to get it done and I looked over and these boys were making these tiny fine little stitches. It was really beautiful. It amazes me that they just really like it. They just take to it.

LR: That's wonderfully encouraging.

MS: Yes, it is, but we do a lot of work with the schools in the area here. A couple of years ago a couple of us from the Quilt Guild went to an elementary school. They were working on their SOLs, the Standards of Learning Program. We went into the classroom. We worked with every child in this elementary school for 30 minutes for three days. I mean, we just sounded like a broken record after a while, but after we talked to them and they were each given an opportunity to pick out squares of fabric and they glued them on a piece of paper like a nine patch quilt then we put them up on the wall either in a straight set or on point set so they could see the difference with or without sashing and then the teachers had them go back and they took something they had learned from their SOLs, colored it on fabric and then we helped them put them together. And they sold these at their silent auction at their festival. I think they raised something like $800. And we do these programs through other school projects, whether lectures or working hands on.

LR: Talk just a little longer about your Guild and your role in the Guild. What have you done? Have you been an officer in the Guild?

MS: Our Guild is entering its 17th year here and I have been a member for about 14 years. I was the editor of their newsletter for three years. I was president for a year. I was quilt show chairman a couple of times and I just went off the Board. I did Programs for six years, which was a lot of fun, bringing in speakers every month. So, I've been very involved with quilt shows and various activities.

LR: So, the school activities that you were talking about, were they part of your program?

MS: No, it was what we called our Continuing Education. And if a school would contact us, we would get a group of ladies and go to the school or whatever they wanted. One school does a Heritage Day every year and we just sat and demonstrated all day long. This other school, I would say, we were there for several days for that project putting it together. Sometimes we just go and show different techniques or whatever the school wants us to do. It's their project. But schools are finding finally that quilts are more than art. They can put it into math. They can put it into history. They can put it into so many other programs that it makes it interesting rather than just art.

LR: Wonderful. You've been in quilting for a long time and what do you see as the future of quilting in America?

MS: I don't know how much more it is going to grow. I see our numbers seem to be leveling off. But I think we are getting new people as we are losing older ones. I don't think it is dropping. We are getting new, younger people. I think it is always going to be around. I think they finally realize it is more than just a big cover, that you can make garments, you can make something for the wall, you can make placemats, table runners, you know, there is a whole list of variety of things that you can make beside just a quilt that goes on the bed.

LR: Your lovely vests and jackets.

MS: And I think it is always going to be around. The fabrics that are coming out on the market today, there's really way too many on the market, they're wonderful. Every season they get better. And there's more designers out there and manufacturers so I don't see it going out of style in the future. There is just too much there to do.

LR: Talk for a minute about trends. From when you started quilting to what you see now. Maybe trends you see in patterns, materials.

MS: When I started quilting, as I mentioned earlier, there was a lot of cotton polyester stuff out there. And fortunately, we have gotten away from the cotton-poly blends. Quilters almost exclusively in true quilting will use 100% cotton. There are exceptions if some ladies will even go into some decorator fabrics if it's the right color and pattern that she needs. A lot of silks are being used in appliqué, but as a whole, it is 100% cotton. Again, back in the '70's all the patterns were the little floral, the little calicos and there was maybe three patterns on the market and they all came in all different colors, but that was about it. [laugh.] For now, the patterns are just so luscious. The cottons feel like silks and there a lot of batiks on the market that are just yummy. I mean you just wonder how they can come up with another design. And there's a lot of novelty fabrics on the market today. There's just something for everybody. And as far as patterns go, years ago it was the traditional patterns and that was about it. Now, there's everything from watercolors to very contemporary appliqués to stylized flowers. I mean, you name it, there's a pattern for it. It doesn't take long to find a lot. Just all kinds of books and loose patterns.

LR: What about the tools?

MS: The tools have changed a lot. When I first started quilting, you had a cardboard pattern that you traced off yourself and you drew around it, with hopefully, not to dull a pencil and you cut it out with your scissors. And that was pretty much the standard for whatever we did. And then the rotary cutter came along, and boy did that really speed things up. And we didn't have templates because all your markings are on the ruler, you just have to learn how to use it, and it is much more accurate because you don't have to worry if the pencil is dull and which side of the line do I cut on and the techniques have really been perfected because of all the advancement in tools, you know, marking pencils you can see on the fabrics; and if you want to mark your intersections on pattern pieces in the corners, they have now come out with a 1/16 inch paper punch that you can just, indicate the intersection, there is just very little room for error in these patterns. And the sewing machines are state of the art anymore and they developed all kinds of feet and gadgets and attachments for them to make it really easy to get perfection.

LR: I understand some of the machines can be programmed?

MS: Oh, yes!

LR: Do you do that?

MS: Yes, yes.

LR: Tell me about it.

MS: I have a computerized sewing machine and I can plug it into my computer, and I can design what I want to do, and it just stitches it out. Whether it also does embroidery. I can scan in my grandchildren's artwork and set it for auto digitize and I can stitch it out. I mean, it just, it has its own modem, its own CD unit, it's Windows powered, and there's just very little that it doesn't do for you.

LR: Amazing.

MS: It is. It really is when you think of the treadle that I sewed on early on.

LR: You and your husband have a collection of sewing machines?

MS: My husband does. I wanted one treadle machine, and it didn't take him too long to find that and then he started finding another treadle, but it's different from that one, and I don't know how many he has now. We have a garage full. I was fussing at him this morning about cleaning it. And there are some down in the storage unit and he has some in the Sewing Machine Room right here in the Virginia Quilt Museum and then when he decided that those were too big and taking up too much space, he started collecting little toy sewing machines. Many of them were made as toys, but a lot of them, they were miniatures of the true sewing machine, and the salesman would use these to carry as their demo product to shop owners to sell the machine because the big one was just too big to carry around. But he enjoys that. He does more of the real collecting than I do.

LR: We only have a couple of minutes left believe it or not, and I was just looking over some of the questions here, but I wonder if there is anything else that you would like to talk about as a quilt maker and the role of quilting.

MS: I have just so thoroughly enjoyed it that it is just hard for me to comprehend that everybody else doesn't like doing it as well. People, why they don't want to try it. There's just so much there. I've always done something with hand work, needle work of some kind, from crewel to cross stitch to all the other forms of sewing, Barbie dolls clothes and all that through the years that I would just be lost if I couldn't sew. I think that would be just a real tragedy if the day comes when I can't sew. You know, I've got one of my daughter's sewing, quilting, and the other one will hopefully start with my granddaughter, so we're trying to keep it going, at least in our family.

LR: You mentioned earlier that you made clothes. When did you start making clothes?

MS: Probably when I was about twelve or thirteen. I make all kinds of clothes, my children's, my grandchildren's, and my husband's.

LR: Was that part of your school curriculum?

MS: Yes. I have a degree in Home Ec Education and taught Home Economics.

LR: Okay. So, any other comments before we finish?

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

LR: I think you've covered it pretty well. Okay, thank you, Mariann, for allowing me to interview you today as part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories Project, and our interview was concluded at 12:44 p.m.



“Mariann Simmons,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 24, 2024,