Mary Jo Dolphin




Mary Jo Dolphin




Mary Jo Dolphin


Evelyn Salinger

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Iris Karp


Washington, D.C.


Evelyn Salinger


Evelyn Salinger (ES): This is Evelyn Salinger and I'm conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Mary Jo Dolphin. Today's date is May 25, 2010. The time is 9:45 a.m. This interview is taking place during the Daughters of Dorcas meeting in Washington, DC. Hi, Mary Jo.

Mary Jo Dolphin (MJD): Hi, Evelyn.

ES: It is so nice of you to agree to come today. First, I would like to take a good look at this beautiful quilt you brought to show us. Will you tell us about it?

MJD: Okay, I will read what is on the label and then we can talk about it. This is from my mom. This is what she told me. 'The Red School House Quilt, circa 1880. This quilt was given to Mary Alzina Strother as a wedding gift.' Which was my mother's mother. 'It was hand made by her friends. She was part Cherokee Indian and part Black. My mother remembers that she had a nose like a Cherokee Indian. My mother, Mary J. Dolphin, remembers her being very strict and not as a very loving person. [laughs.] It had been in the possession of Leontine Drane until taken for safe keeping by her granddaughter, Mary Jo Dolphin.' So, my grandmother had this in her house. And she called it The Log Cabin Quilt. So, I talked to my grandmother. The Log Cabin is usually a different pattern. She said, 'No. Back in my day, they called this The Log Cabin Quilt because it actually looks like a log cabin.'

ES: Yes, it does.

MJD: So, I did not know if this was a Log Cabin Quilt because of when it was made or if it's a School House Quilt. So that's why the label is not permanent until I can figure out exactly if this is a Log Cabin or a School House Quilt.

ES: Will you describe the colors?

MJD: My grandmother said this was the red that was used back when she was a little girl. The white and light blue trim are around the entire edge, and it was hand quilted, and you can see that it was hand quilted.

ES: It's got a tremendous amount of stitches.

MJD: It's never been washed, and we still have the one edge which I refuse to repair. And it lays on my daughter's bed with another quilt on top of it, because I don't want to fold it.

ES: Aha. And it just stays there. Nobody's using the bed right now?

MJD: No. Nobody's using the bed.

ES: You just keep it open. Oh, that's wonderful. So, it has never been washed? And it is in such good condition.

MJD: And this is what gave me the incentive to get into quilting.

ES: Aha. That's what I usually ask. Did you encounter this when you were a little girl?

MJD: No. I didn't find this quilt until one summer I went to visit my grandmother in Indiana. She lived in Indianapolis, Indiana. And she had this on a guest bed. There were two beds in the room. And it was on the other bed. And I asked her about it and that's when the whole story of the quilt came out. She had another quilt that they used as a mattress cover, which is on top of the box spring, and it was all torn up and she was going to throw it away, I said, 'No, no, no, no.' So, I took that quilt back when I went back after the vacation. This quilt is still with me. When I came to visit the following year, because I was an adult then, my daughter's grown, and so I flew up and I said, 'Grandma, I'm taking this quilt back home with me.' And I hand carried it back home. It very seldom leaves my house. So, this is a rarity for it to be here. [laughs.]

ES: Thank you for sharing it with us.

MJD: I thought this was important to share because--

ES: Oh. Yes. We'll try to get a good picture of it.

MJD: I forgot the color of the red that they used back in 1880, but--

ES: Turkey red?

MJD: Yes. That's it. Turkey red.

ES: And what is on the back?

MJD: It's just muslin. And it's unfortunate. Nobody signed it. There's no signature, no nothing on the back.

ES: So, do you know who made it?

MJD: No. I asked my grandmother and my mother, and she just said, 'Friends of her mother.' And as a wedding gift, you would think they would have signed it.

ES: You would think so. Well, that's why we have this Quilters' - Save our Stories. Because suddenly we realized that there are so many quilts with no names. And it's too bad.

MJD: Yes. I tried to contact [Raymond.] Dobbard, but Maria [Goodwin.] said that I had the wrong email address, to see if he could tell me if this actually is a Log Cabin or if it's a School House Quilt.

ES: Your grandmother may have been right that at that time they called it Log Cabin because it resembles that, but definitely now we call it the School House Quilt.

MJD: Yeah, the School House. I have a pattern that looks just like this, so I don't want to put a permanent label on it until somebody can actually tell me what it is.

ES: And the whole thing, I'm sure, is pieced by hand.

MJD: Yes. All hand pieced.

ES: When did you first decide that you were going to start to make quilts?

MJD: Well, after I brought this back home, I went to a store by the University of Maryland. I started out as a cross stitcher and embroiderer, hand embroiderer, because both my grandmother and mother cross stitch and hand embroider and do needle point. But neither one of them were quilters. So, I went to the store to get some thread for my needle point project, and they had a book by Eleanor Burns, Quilt in a Day. I am in the needlepoint store, yarn shop, and I'm getting a book on quilting. And that was, let's see, I started Daughters of Dorcas in 1999, so I am thinking maybe 1998, 97. And I did that quilt. [laughs.]

ES: It wasn't in a day, was it?

MJD: No, not in a day. But that's how I got started. And then I was reading an article in Essence magazine, "Women of Color" by [Dr. Carolyn.] Mazloomi. I called her and she told me to come here to talk to Viola [Canady.] And that's how everything got started.

ES: So, you hadn't heard of the Daughters of Dorcas before that.

MJD: No. I never heard about it.

ES: So, once you came to see Viola, then you stayed?

MJD: I stayed. Yes.

ES: So, it is about 10 years now that you've been in?

MJD: I found my card and it says 1999 on it.

ES: Very good. So how much of your life is taken up with quilts now?

MJD: Half. Fifty per cent. [laughs.] Yeah, I try to quilt a little bit every day. But now knitting has creeped in a little bit. But I quilt a little bit every day. I'm trying to get back to doing more hand quilting than machine quilting. So, if I machine piece the quilt then I try to do some hand stitching on top. So, all my quilts are not all machine pieced and machine stitched. I'm trying to do a little bit of both.

ES: Which do you prefer, actually?

MJD: Well, I really prefer both because sometimes when I am like stressed out, sitting in a chair just hand quilting is just so relaxing. So, I kind of like both. That's why I kind of have one project that's machine and one project that I can carry with my hand.

ES: What does your family think about your projects?

MJD: Oh, they think they're wonderful. Yeah. I think everybody has a quilt. All my family has a quilt, even the babies now. And the baby quilts are--I wash all the fabrics first. And then I machine the heck out of them, because I don't want them to fold them up and put them in a drawer. I want them to use them. So, my grandson's quilt, he's ten and his quilts were handed down to his brother. But I did make Brenden a couple extra quilts. But they lasted, what ten years now. Baby quilts do need a lot of quilting on their quilts.

ES: That's good because they usually get dragged around until they are in shreds.

MJD: Uh-hum. They take them to school for nap time and movie time, so they've seen the worst of it. I learned not to appliqué on a baby quilt, because the wheels of the buses and the cars and trucks are coming off. [laughs.] So, I said, 'Well, I won't do that again.'

ES: That's a good idea. Do you have time to do any more embroidery?

MJD: Unfortunately, no. Because quilting and knitting's taken over, the embroidery and the cross stitch are kind of sitting in the closet. [laughs.]

ES: Yeah. There is only so much time.

MJD: Only so much time, but I have several pieces that are in progress that I really need to get back to and finish.

ES: Uh-hum. You said that you had early memories from your grandmother. Do you have any other contacts over the years that were quilters?

MJD: With other people who were quilters? In my family?

ES: Either family or even friends.

MJD: When I started quilting, I was the only one. And then when I went to work and I was sharing my accomplishments, I thought were accomplishments, they were quite impressed with what I was doing. And then they were saying, 'Well, how can I get a quilt? How can I get a quilt?' So, my list for making people quilts was quite long. I don't like to sell my quilts, but I have sold some, but mostly I like to make them as gifts. But for family friends, I give them as gifts. And what I do is I ask them. I don't ask them for a pattern, I ask them what is their favorite color. [or subject such as butterflies or flowers, etc.]

ES: Good idea.

MJD: A couple of people, like my niece, she's into butterflies. So, I know she likes purple and butterflies, so her quilt was based on that. So mostly I just ask them what their favorite color is, and I go from there. So, everybody has a quilt. I have a couple of quilts in my daughter's house hanging on the wall where I use the African fabric and African symbols on their quilts. And then I made them a wedding quilt. So just about everybody has a quilt.

ES: That's really nice. People ask me, 'Everybody has a quilt, so why do you keep making quilts?'

MJD: That's a good question. I have a lot of tops that are just tops. And they say, 'What are you going to do with them?' And I say, 'I don't know.' I'm not going to sell them. But I also make a quilt each year for the Georgetown Day School for the scholarship. They have an auction every year. And so, I submit a quilt for the auction.

ES: And that would be a child's quilt?

MJD: No. It doesn't matter. I have done big quilts, little quilts, wall quilts. And you just tell them how much you think it's worth. And the people just bid on it and whatever money they get from the quilt goes to the scholarship. Yeah, I've got one on the bed now that's going to go to the scholarship. It used to be in the late Spring. But they moved it up to early March. And so, I am used to giving it to them in May, and now they want it in March. And I totally forget. Last year, I forgot, so the quilt is ready now for next year. So, yeah, I do that every year.

ES: Do you design your own quilts?

MJD: I'm just now getting into that. I don't see a design. I see a design in a magazine, and I can alter it. But to design my own quilts, I haven't started that yet. But I would like to.

ES: And traditional patterns?

MJD: I love traditional. I'm trying to get into art quilts. But when I see an art quilt on the wall, I am trying to say, 'What is this person trying to tell me?' And sometimes I can see what they are saying and sometimes it's like an abstract art piece. I am just saying I just don't understand it. So, I am telling friends, I am definitely a traditional quilter. I love the traditional patterns. I just use more modern fabrics for it, and I might put my own special spin on it. But I am not an art quilter yet. I am definitely a traditionalist.

ES: And you love colors.

MJD: I'm getting into colors. The only color I don't like is black. If a quilt calls for black, then I'll use navy blue.

ES: What is your favorite aspect of the quilting process?

MJD: I don't have a favorite aspect. I really think I like all of it. I like shopping for the fabric. I like cutting the fabric, I like sewing the fabric and I like putting it up on the wall and saying, I take a look at the pattern, and I put it up on the wall and look at it, I end up taking something down because I don't like it. So, I like all aspects of it even if I have to go back to the store and buy more fabric or find something to take its place. It's just the whole process. I enjoy the whole process. I guess the best part is giving it somebody and seeing them smile. [laughs.]

ES: Oh. Yes.

MJD: Oh, my gosh.

ES: Do you keep track of the quilts you've made?

MJD: Yes. I have all the pictures. And I know who I gave what to, but if I can go back home and give you a notebook and say, 'Here.' You would say, 'No.' But the pictures are all there. So, I really need to catalogue it, because I am doing my family history. And that has to be catalogued, so I need to get my pictures in order. But I know when I see a picture, I know who has that quilt. But it's not the way it should be. [laughs.]

ES: It's a similar complaint all around. Have you ever entered shows?

MJD: No. I don't think my stuff is--

ES: In the Sumner School?

MJD: Yes, they've been in. But I don't consider that a show. Oh, I'm thinking of a show for a ribbon.

ES: Have you ever done any teaching?

MJD: Yes. When I did teach at Georgetown Day School, I was a first-grade teacher. I was bringing some of my quilts in to use their tables to pin it, because I did not have a big enough table at home. And my first-grade teachers started asking me, 'Will you show me how to do it?' So, during lunch time and snack time, we would sneak into the little room, and I started. So, I taught quite a few teachers at Georgetown.

ES: And how did you start that? With patchwork?

MJD: I started them all on Nine Patch, so they could learn how to do the quarter inch. One girl wanted to learn how to do it by hand and another girl wanted to do it by machine. So, I have a portable machine, a lightweight Brother, and I brought it with the quarter inch foot. And I showed her how to set up the machine and how to sew the quarter inch foot and how important the quarter inch foot was. And I also brought them the Fons and Porter [Quilters' Complete Guide.] and the book, Quilts, Quilts, Quilts. And I said, 'You can take them home and borrow them, but these are your library. You use them as your reference.' And they have just gone off and made quilts. Men and women. [laughs.]

ES: How long were you a teacher?

MJD: Twenty years.

ES: Did you enjoy that?

MJD: Yes.

ES: Did you do artwork with the children?

MJD: No. They offer art at the school. But we did art as part of our curriculum. But specific art they actually went to art classes. I wish I could have gone with them. [laughs.]

ES: Because you seem very artistic.

MJD: Yeah. We did a lot of art in the classroom. But they have art class.

ES: Good. You said you have sold some things.

MJD: Yes.

ES: These are commissioned works?

MJD: People ask me if I will make them a quilt. The secretary of the school asked me to make her a quilt because her daughter was going off to college. So that was yellow and black. And I also made quilted bags for some people in the different offices. I remember I had to make one with horses on it and one with flowers. I've made their children quilts. I don't charge for the baby quilts. I don't know why, but I decided I just couldn't charge for baby quilts. I decided that is something special. The baby quilts are free but anything other than a baby quilt they have to pay me. And my daughter always said that I should get half before and then half after I give it to them. But I don't. I just wait till the end.

ES: And they come through.

MJD: All have come through but one. But that's okay.

ES: Do you collect other quilts from other people? Besides the one from your family?

MJD: No. This is the only one I have and the other one that I snatched off the bed that she was going to throw away. Those are the only two I have.

ES: Have you mended that?

MJD: No. I'm not going to mend it. I'm just going to leave it.

ES: What was the pattern for that one, the one you snatched off the bed?

MJD: It was a Nine Patch. Nine Patches all over. No, it was not a Nine Patch. You know, when you take squares, and you just have all squares? All squares from various, my grandmother says, like from clothes that they wore. So that's all it was. And you could see the real thick batting that was coming through. And it has feed sacks on the back. So, I said, 'Grandma, you can't throw that away.' So, she had it underneath, on top of the box spring, you know. I folded it up and took that home.

ES: That happened in my family, too. My grandmother's old one ended up under the mattress.

MJD: Yes. [laughs.]

ES: Are there any stories or experiences that you would like to share about quilting?

MJD: Well, not really. I just enjoy doing it and I enjoy sharing experiences with other people. When I was working, I loved to take in my work because people enjoyed what all I was doing. Also, I do admissions. [at the Georgetown Day School.] And one of the ladies that works with me does antique quilts. And she goes to antique shows and buys antique quilts. I took the two to the school to show her and she just went gaga over them. And she's the one that told me about getting it appraised and somebody at the Smithsonian to look at it. She thought it was a School House Quilt, too, but she said, 'But I'm not sure.' So, she said, 'You should really get it looked at.' But you know even coming with this quilt in the car was nerve wracking. It never comes out of my house. [laughs.]

ES: Oh. I appreciate your bringing it.

MJD: You said about bringing something that was an inspiration. Every time I see this, it just reminds me of my grandmother. With them being non-quilters but although they did hand work. My grandmother did beautiful tea towels and pillowcases, and my mother does more needlepoint and cross stitch, and she has all her angels. All her pillows have something to do with angels or Christmas. Each one of us, we don't want to talk about it this year, knows that when she passes that one of those pillows for us. She does them all in needlepoint or cross stitch. And they are all beautiful, but she never got into quilting. She sewed clothes but she never got into quilting. I'm the quilter.

ES: Your family came from--?

MJD: My mom came from Indianapolis, Indiana by way of Madisonville, Kentucky. And my father came from Roanoke [Virginia.] and moved to Philadelphia [Pennsylvania.] and then to DC.

ES: And you have lived here?

MJD: I have lived here in DC. I'm a true native, born in Freeman's Hospital. My brother was born in Tacoma, Washington, but not this Takoma, Washington. Tacoma, Washington, state. He tells his friends, 'Tacoma with a C and not with a K.'

ES: Do you consider yourself, self-taught?

MJD: I'm definitely self-taught. One girl at work asked me, 'How'd you learn how to do that?' And my father always said, 'If you want to learn to do something, read a book.' So, I told her that I read a book. She didn't believe me. But literally, I read Eleanor Burns' book and I went through it step by step. Now it does not look like it should have, because it was my first quilt. But I am self-taught. Then I took a couple of classes, but because of my back, I just can't sit in a class all day long. So basically, I am self-taught. Read a book and try to figure it out.

ES: Do you like appliqué? Or do you mostly do piecework?

MJD: I don't like appliqué. I have done it. Elsie [Houston.] taught me how to do appliqué. I tried it, but that's not one of my favorite things to do. Elsie says that my stitches have improved. I met the lady that does the appliqué. She does applique at Seminole Sampler. She has a book out, too. Her work is absolutely gorgeous. And I happened to meet her at the Washington Hospital when my grandmother was there. We just started up a conversation because I was hand piecing something and she brought out her embroidery. We just started talking. She said, 'I'm Elly Sienkiewicz.' My mouth just dropped. And I said, 'Yes. I've read your books.' I said that I was impressed with her work.

ES: Did you meet Dr. Mazloomi, too, when she was here?

MJD: No. I missed her. And I keep missing her and Faith Ringgold.

ES: Oh. Yeah.

MJD: Because Faith Ringgold came when I was working and by the time the book reading started, I could not get off from work. And then I missed Mrs. Mazloomi when she was here, so I was very disappointed.

ES: Do you have advice for new quilters?

MJD: Let's see. What would I advise new quilters? I would say, get with a friend that enjoys quilting. And than I think a beginner would not feel so frustrated if they make mistakes. With a friend or a group of friends makes quilting so enjoyable.

ES: Just going to a book, you think maybe that took longer?

MJD: Yes. I think it did take me longer. I was a lone quilter and there was nobody doing quilting at work. I would think it took longer, but if you know somebody, even it is a small group, get yourself with somebody. Just like when you learn to how walk, you go on walks or whatever activity, you do it with someone. You don't do it by yourself.

ES: That's a good idea. Do you belong to other groups besides Daughters of Dorcas now?

MJD: There's a small group now called Creative Spirits. They are into art quilts. So, we're trying to do art quilts, but this is the major group, Daughters of Dorcas.

ES: And that art group, do you have a goal each month or something?

MJD: Yes, we do a project every month. Say the project is a flower. And you just design a flower whatever way you want. It doesn't matter what it looks like. It's your conception of what a flower is. And I went out and got petals from a flower. [bells ringing.] And I stamped it on to a white fabric. I designed around that and called it, "My Flower Garden." As I was looking at the quilt the other day, I noticed that it is starting to fade. The ink from the flower is starting to fade, although it is not hanging in the sunlight. It's hanging on a wall where there's no sun. I thought that was most interesting. So, we try different projects like that.

ES: Do you make them as wall hangings?

MJD: We make them as wall hangings.

ES: How has quilting had meaning for the American woman?

MJD: I am glad it has had a resurgence because quilts are not something to put on beds, it's actually now an art. And people are looking at it as art now. [In the 80's and 90's, people would say.] 'You're a quilter?' You had that, you know, smirk on people's faces. Now, everybody says, 'Are you a quilter!' I think it has made people realize now that hand work that people do is now is valued more than maybe it was say maybe ten years ago. People looked at you like you were crazy. Now people are going back to, 'it's handmade,' and it is more valued. It is more looked upon as a prize to get. I enjoy working with my hands. Arthritis is trying to creep in, but I'm not going to let it bother me. I still enjoy it. And I think that people around the world and around the United States are more appreciative of hand work now. We're going green. We're going back to hand made work. I look at the QVC and HSN and they have quilts on there for 45 dollars. We looked at it and we say, 'Wow.' [laughs.]

ES: Is there anything biographical about your family that you would like to tell as part of you and your background?

MJD: Well. My mom sews and she made a lot of my clothes when we were growing up. We liked it a lot better. She does hand work, too, although arthritis is getting to her so she can't do as much. My grandmother did it, my grandmother on my mother's side. My grandmother on my father's side was also a seamstress. And she started off with the pedal, the treadle machine. And it was supposed to be handed down to me but unfortunately, I didn't get it. She also did my doll clothes. I would spend my summer there and we used to go down and get patterns and she would sew my doll clothes. I think the sewing was back in my mind, but it took me a while to get there. You know, when you are a teenager, you don't want to do everything.

ES: When did you actually start sewing for yourself?

MJD: When my daughter was born.

ES: I mean, did you learn in school?

MJD: In junior high school, we had a sewing class we had to take, which I think they should institute back into the schools. In fact, we made aprons and all kinds of stuff. And the teacher was very strict, and it was a good thing because she made us see how clothes were made and why you just don't do things certain ways. And then I got into high school, I made a lot of my clothes. Then when I got to college, I stopped. And my daughter was born, I went back to sewing. And I made all her clothes until she got too specific for, I wanted to do. Then I stopped again for a while and just before she got married, I picked it back up again. So, it's been off and on, starts and stops. But I've always had a sewing machine. When I was at home, I had a sewing machine. When I got married, I had a sewing machine. I still have that sewing machine. I'm not going to get rid of it. So, I might have done some sewing, but I didn't stick to it as much as I should have. Like I didn't like cooking. My mother tried hard to get me to cook. I went into the art part. My daughter is not into art, she is into cooking. Hopefully, when she settles down with her job, she's really good at art and design. But she doesn't have time with two boys and work to have time to sit down and do it, but I've seen some of her work. I said, 'Laini, you can sit down and do this, and it will come out very nice.' And she tried for a while, but it didn't work out. So, I'm hoping that when the boys are older, she will get back to art. I gave her one of my sewing machines, so a sewing machine is in her house. [laughs.]

ES: Do you have your own sewing room?

MJD: Yes, first I had the guest room which is about the size of this room here, if not smaller. And when she got married and moved out, I started looking at her room. I said, 'Laini, may I have your room?' She said, 'Mom, I'm not coming back home.' So, I moved my sewing room into her room, now. So, I have a little more space.

ES: Do you have a big stash?

MJD: Yeah, I have too much. I don't need to go to the store to buy more fabric, but [laughs.]
I am into batiks, now. I love batiks.

ES: What do you do with the batiks?

MJD: Quilts. Wall hangings.

ES: You can cut them--

MJD: I hate to cut them; they are so pretty. I love batiks. I also like the tone on tone where you have a red on red and it has little flecks of deeper red. It reads like a solid from a distance, but when you get up close it is tone on tone. Seminole Sampler is good at that fabric.

ES: Where is Seminole Sampler?

MJD: Seminole Sampler is in Catonsville, just outside Baltimore. And I asked the owner, 'I like your store because you have so many tonals.' She said, 'Because of the appliqué classes by Elly Sienkiewicz.' She comes and does the classes. They work with a lot of solids and tonals. And I just love the tonals. I would love to do this one as a wall hanging. It is hidden away, so nobody can see it. I don't want to hang it up on the wall because it is too fragile. So, I bought the fabric and everything for this quilt, but it's still sitting in the package.

ES: It certainly has been very interesting. Is there anything else you want to tell us?

MJD: I think that's about it.

ES: You certainly have a joy of quilting.

MJD: I really love it. I didn't think I was going to, but just the satisfaction of seeing a piece of fabric turn into a quilt is-- 'Ah, I did that?' So I stand and look and say, 'I did that.'

ES: And you know it will survive you.

MJD: Sarajane [Goodwin.] was saying that to sign your work now on the front as well as on the back.

ES: Why would that be?

MJD: The artists, when they do the artwork, sign their work on the front. They are encouraging quilters now to put your label on the back with your name and everything but get a small space to sign on the front.

ES: Should that be in embroidery stitches?

MJD: I've been using a paper pen.

ES: But some of those pens do fade.

MJD: That's a good point. I could embroider it in.

ES: That's very good advice. I like that.

MJD: Put your name and the date. And of course, your label on the back.

ES: There are so many quilts that are anonymous.

MJD: I wish [the quilters did sign the quilt so we would know.] who made this, because she didn't know either.

ES: Well, thank you so much for the interview. It is very interesting.

MJD: Thank you.

End of interview: 10:20 a.m.


“Mary Jo Dolphin,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024,