Mary Huey



Mary Huey




Mary Huey


Amy Milne

Interview Date

October 21, 2011

Interview sponsor



Duluth, Georgia


Amy Milne (AM): We're on. So this is Amy Milne. Today's date is October 21st and it is 12.06 and I'm conducting an interview with Mary Huey for Quilter's SOS, Save Our Stories, a project of the Alliance for American Quilts. Mary and I are at the Georgia Quilt Show with you, thank you for coming as well, in Duluth, GA and Mary's brought a couple of quilts with her but I'm going to ask her, tell us about this larger quilt that you brought with you today, Mary.

MH: You may not be able to tell from the distance that you're sitting because of the very subtle fabric and value combinations, but it's a "double wedding ring" quilt -- I made it two years ago and it was originally intended to be a teaching tool. I teach with Marti Michell's rotary cutting products and she has a really good set that I wanted to teach classes with so the idea of the quilt was that every variation you could do of "double wedding ring" was demonstrated in this quilt -- but it turned out to be a pretty overwhelming quilt for beginner quilters or newer quilters who've never done curved piecing to take in so I don't actually use it in classes until the very end of the class and then I show people. I've made a much simpler one since then. I call the quilt 'The Geisha's Dream', the fabric that triggered everything was the fabric that has the three geisha portraits. Then I pulled out all my oriental fabrics which didn't turn out to be quite as many oriental fabrics as I thought so I had to expand. I'm in a mode right now where I'm trying to work really focused in my stash. I figured I've spent thirty-some years collecting fabric now it's time to start using fabric and so -- we'll leave it up after we get done finished talking but if you come up and take a closer look at it you'll see that there really aren't very many oriental prints, but there's lots of florals and textured prints to carry out the theme with the colors of the fabric. Then I quilted it very simply because I was intending to use it as a teaching tool and I find that even the simplest quilts, when you girls look at it, if it's got real complex quilting on it you immediately assume that the quilt is difficult to make, even though it could be a "nine patch", if it's got complex quilting on it it just changes your whole perception of it. [pause.]

AM: What about the other quilt's that you brought, do you want to talk about those?

MH: Each one of these are teaching quilts. One's a mystery I wrote last year and I ran it through from January through June. How many of you have done a mystery quilt? Yeah, not very many. People are really scared of mystery quilts -- but I've been doing them for my students for about ten or twelve years and they love doing them and I think once you have the courage to do one then you develop more confidence and go ahead and do others. The key is when you chose a mystery quilt is to look for one where the writer helps you select the fabrics by talking to you about the value of the fabric that you want, not the color -- because value is what makes a traditional pattern work or not work so when I write a mystery I talk about lights, light medium, mediums, darks -- that sort of thing and the color doesn't really make any difference. I haven't got them up on the website yet but I've got photographs of about a dozen of these projects finished and there's a couple hanging over at the designer's showcase booth and they don't even look like the same quilt because of the variations in value and that sort of thing.
I love this "Bride's bouquet' or Nosegay block. It ended up to be a really challenging quilt to make because I ran out of the big red print. The big red print was supposed to be the triangles here around the outside edges and I actually think that the quilt turned out better with that black polka dot than it would've with the big red print. Then I didn't have a long enough piece of the black to make the borders and so I ended up chopping it up and inserting those green strips so that you can't tell I didn't have a long enough piece to make the border. It's those kinds of things that really stimulate me a lot creatively and I think my pieces always end up better than what I originally had sketched out. I think sometimes you can get too wound up in the plan and you don't leave yourself open to what's going on. This piece uses big "strip-piece" stars that my husband’s grandmother, we think, made. I've had them in my stash for thirty years trying to decide if I'm going to make seven quilts for all seven of the grandchildren out of twelve stars and I finally decided, 'Oh the heck with it, I'm going to make three quilts out of them, for my three kids, and the heck with the other four'. [laughter.]

[inaudible comment or question.]

Well, you have to figure out what's the thing that's keeping you from finishing that project and then you have to find a way to get that momentum going again -- so that's what I did with that one -- and it's going. [laugher.]

AM: I don't know what a mystery quilt is, can you elaborate on that?

MH: Oh sure. A mystery quilt is -- well I think they were started by industrious shopkeepers who wanted to bring people in to buy more fabric. Does anybody else get that impression? In the beginning you do not know what the quilt is going to look like when you're finished so we give mysterious clues like, you need two yards of light and five yards of dark and that sort of thing. I always educated my staff when I had the shop to keep people from running too far amuck so the staff knew what it looked like and they knew how strong a contrast would work well in a place or if somebody had too close a value so that they wouldn't lose the design all together. And then every month what I do is give them another page of instructions about what to do but I scramble the instructions all up. So for example in that quilt, one month you made the big triangle sets and then the next month you made the "four-patches" but you had no idea how they were merging together and the third month you made something else and the fourth month you went back and put the blocks together and you still didn't know what was going on so you don't know what the quilt is going to look like until you see the final thing.

AM: Oh that's neat. [laughter.] So, you make a lot of these as samples for classes -- what happens to them? Do you give quilt's away or --

MH: Yes. Yes. It was interesting, a group of us were talking yesterday and one of the girls said she had a couple hundred quilts, she's a teacher and a pattern designer and -- I only have about seventy in the house which most of my friends find pretty shocking but I do cull things and keep them moving out. I'll use them for gifts. Over the years I've donated a lot of them to organizations to use as fundraiser's, that sort of thing -- yeah, they keep moving on through -- because you do get tired of looking at some of them after a while. The first quilt I ever made which I think is the ugliest quilt I've ever made just came back to me recently. It was given to my sister many many years ago and she moved from the East coast to the West coast and moved into a smaller house and so she felt she needed to thin things down and she gave me back this quilt and I don't think it's ever been washed which means it's never been used and so it's hanging in my living room on the quilt rack and I'm feeling very torn about what to do with it because I -- well -- I think it's going to get donated to somebody that could really use a quilt.

AM: Well, of your quilts that you still have, are they on the bed, or on the wall, or both?

MH: Both. Both. Every bed in the house. We don't actually at this point have any blankets in the house, we just have quilts and I've developed a rotation system. I'm a very seasonal quilter in terms of the fabric that I like to use so right now I'm in my fall fabric mode and so everything I do I want to do with fall fabrics -- I've developed a rotation system and I have groups of compatible wall hangings that I rotate through the living room and through my office and that sort of thing. They aren't all the same size so what I've just discovered this past year when I was repainting my office was -- I painted the piece of the rod that I put the quilts on, the same color as the wall so when the rods are longer than the quilt you don't even know it because it just blends right in -- I thought that was a genius solution!

AM: Really? --

MH: Yeah. I wish I'd thought of it years ago. [laughter.] Who knew?

AM: So your family -- we do have quick questions beforehand to just kind of get a general idea of what you're interests and accomplishments are in quilting. Who in your family quilted -- quilts now?

MH: Well both of my daughter's will quilt when they need a gift. They don't quilt as compulsively as I do and my mother quilted although she and I learned to quilt at the same -- one of the great thrills in my life was to have my mom take a quilting class from me and I had the opportunity to say to her, 'You know, I think you need to rip that out' --
-- because I'm pretty sure that's all she said to me from the time I started sewing when I was ten until I left for college --
[laughter.] -- it was a real buzz to be able to tell her she had to take something apart. One grandmother quilted. My great-grandmother quilted but I never saw any of those quilts until after those women passed away. During the 50's those quilts were hidden away because that was country stuff and they wanted to be more sophisticated.

AM: What's your first quilt memory? Do you remember them quilting?

MH: No. No. No, my first -- actually I started quilting because I was bored when I was pregnant with the oldest child and going to graduate school and they didn't offer any courses so I was a textiles and clothing major and I started quilting and got hooked on it.

AM: And what got you started teaching?

MH: That was kind of an accident actually. Interestingly when I majored in home economics in college I refused to major in education because I did not want to teach. One of my first jobs out of college was for the co-operative extension service in Ohio and the first thing they do when they hire new agents is whisk you off to Ohio State University and give you an intensive three week course in adult education and how to teach adults because it's a little different than teaching school and at the end of it you do a presentation -- you actually teach the rest of your classmates something and they video tape it and then they go back through that video tape and critique it -- oh my goodness.
I didn't realize how frequently I said 'Um' until that day. Um --

AM Um. --

MH: Um -- there it is again. [laughter.] When the extension service girls found out I was quilting they asked me to teach a quilting class even though I hardly knew anything at that point, but I knew how to teach and so it just kind of got all lumped together -- and then friends start asking me to show them how to do this and show them how to do that and I thought, 'Well, I might as well as do this for money, too..' so I started teaching.

AM: And then how did you begin working with Marti Michell?

MH: In 1979 I pulled out of the post office parking lot in Willoughby and there's this cute little yellow building about the size of this area from here to the lunch tables and I thought, 'Gosh, that would be a cute little quilt shop, and I'm sure there must be thousands of other women who are as frustrated as I am with not being to find cotton fabric to make quilts with' -- I was really wrong, about the thousands part --
[laughter.] -- I opened the shop and started teaching -- I had to teach everybody that came into the shop how to do this because the women who were quilting through the 60's and into the early 70's -- pardon me but they didn't need no stinking quilt shop -- they been quilting without a quilt shop for years and they were getting along just fine. About 1981 at Quilt Market I encountered Mary Ellen Hopkins who wrote It's Okay if You Sit on My Quilt -- standing on a table in front a group doing a presentation and inviting people to come and learn to teach a technique or a systematic approach that she used to make quilts, so I did. Marti Michell and her husband were the people who were Mary Ellen's publishers at that time and so that's when we originally got acquainted. We've known each other for a really long time. When I closed the shop six years ago she heard about it through the grapevine and came and asked me if I would be interested in trying this experimental thing of becoming an educator for her. It is interesting because she tells a great story about me avoiding her at Quilt Market because I didn't really want to work with the templates but now I'm totally addicted to them.

AM: So now with your quilt making and I guess you can consider this since you've been a quilt maker, how do it impact your family?

MH: How does it impact -- well I can think of a few funny little impacts it's had over the years. My son is the youngest of the three, there's two girls and my son -- they're three years apart and so about the time I started teaching the girls to sew, Jared would have been about three, four years old, something like that -- by the time he was five he could run the sewing machine along with the girls. He conned me into letting him sit in with a sewing class I was doing for little girls at the shop to make tote bags and I can still see him standing in the living room, he's leaning on his dad’s chair saying, 'Dad, there were girls in that class who didn't' know how to run the sewing machine'. He's five and these little girls are seven and Doug's trying to explain to Jared how most little boys' mommies don't sew like your mommy does. He just thought that was totally normal.
[laughter.] All of them have a lot of quilts. I can remember having one laid out on the floor -- this probably would have been when Jared was in high school and I didn't really have a destination for the quilt. I'm a lot more likely to finish it if I can assign to somebody. He comes through the living room and I said, 'Would you like this quilt when I've got it all finished?' and he looked at me and he said 'Well, I've already got two, I don't need another one'. [laughter.] I said, ' If You think you're getting out of this house with two quilts, you're wrong.' At this point everybody expects a quilt. I've given them to nieces and nephews for graduation and that's a real dangerous project to start if you have more than three nieces and nephews by the way [laughter.] I just finished that project this year. The last one graduated, I'm done!

AM: Wow --

MH: I did not start the big quilt things for that reason. Because I had a store for a long time the kids actually worked in the store with me off and on over the years so my younger daughter who's not as much of a quilt maker as she a knitter, she can still probably go help pull fabric for a quilt because she started watching people do that so young. I think my girls are a lot more creative at a lot younger age than I was. I've become more creative as I've quilted longer and longer but my girls -- because they were raised with it from a very young age, are very confident about picking out fabric and the way they put colors together and they'll take on anything.

AM: That's so neat --

MH: Yeah --

AM: Well you quilt professionally, it's the way you make a living by quilting and by teaching --

MH: Right --

AM: Do you ever -- have you ever used quilting to get you through a difficult time or --

MH: Yeah. Yeah --

AM: Tell us about that.

MH: My husband had a very serious series of strokes when he was 48 years old and then he passed away a year later from another stroke and during that whole period of time the sewing is the thing that got me through a lot of those things because it absorbs you enough that you can deal with things to the point that I force myself to sew because I know that if I can sit down at the sewing machine or start cutting up fabric it's going to help me move through that period and the people who supported me the most going through that period and after he passed away were my students and my quilting friends and my staff. Without it I'm not sure how I would have gone through that piece of my life -- so, yeah, definitely..

AM: Tell us -- help us visualize your studio.

MH: Oh dear.. you'd be very pleased to see how messy it is I'm sure because I know -- I think you think that all professional quite makers are tidy little buggers and I want to tell you those studios you see in the magazines -- they've been tidied up before you get to photograph them. That has to be case. You can not sew and not have a mess. There's one wall that's covered with bookshelves and filled with fabric and each color has it's own little shelf. I was telling the group I had in class this morning, when the blue shelf vomits fabric -- [laughter.] -- then I'm not allowed to buy anymore blue. That's how I control my impulses because I already own enough blue to do ten, twelve quilts. Then there's a big cutting table in the middle -- one of the really super big ones -- [coughing.] -- because you need a super big one so that you have enough space for that 24 by 18 mat -- [laughter.] -- because the rest of it's covered up with stuff that you either need to do or you might want to do. Actually one of the most dangerous things I think you can do is clean and organize your sewing room because in the process of doing that you come across all this other really interesting stuff that you had forgotten about that you could do so that's where that pile comes from at the other end of the cutting table. I finally in the last couple of years really put up a good work wall and it covers the whole wall. I took a queen size batting and just staple-gunned it to the wall. It's my wall. The next people can cover up the holes and repaint it if they want. I painted half of it bright yellow and the other half is bright blue, like sky, bright sky blue so it's a real stimulating room. I happen to also be a birder and I love the poster art of Charlie Harper. Over the years I've collected several of his posters and they are up, framed in the sewing room too so it's a real cheerful stimulating room. You have to keep the sewing room clean enough to want to go in there and cheerful enough. If it's a total mess and you find yourself not going in there to work and you keep bringing stuff out of there to work then it's time to organize. Just recently my oldest daughter moved home -- not because she can't afford to be on her own or anything but because she and I are thinking that we're going to merge households to increase our personal stability so we're doing a little test right now. I had to make room for her to come back in and so one of the things I did was to go of some stuff that is beautiful stuff but I'm not using it anymore. So all the wool went -- I love wool stuff but I never sit down and do it so all the wool went, all the flannel went. That was huge, that was a really hard decision to make but in order to keep the stuff I really work with then I have to let go of some of that extraneous stuff. Beautiful buttons went -- they went to good homes. I sold them to -- pardon me, suckers, like you guys -- but --
[laughter.] [inaudible comment.] -- yeah, you're exactly right. But you have to make it appealing enough so that you'll come in there and actually work --

AM: Yeah --

MH: Because I want to work everyday, every single day, every single day, even if I can only work for twenty minutes and that's my work zone.

AM: That was my next question, what your routine is like.

MH: I sew in spurts -- 15, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, because that's the way I've done it for so many years. When I was raising the kids and had a store that was the only way I could fit it in. I used my big blocks of time for planning and cutting and organizing what I'm going to do, but once I get it cut, I'm in and out, in and out, in and out, stitching and sewing. About a year after I closed the store I realized I wasn't doing very much sewing and I was probably in a little bit of a funk. Closing the store after 26 years was like putting down one of the kids. It was a tough decision to make and I really suffered afterwards, even though it was a good move for me to make. I decided I was going to try to sew every single day and in order to hold myself accountable I started a little journal. At the end of every day the idea was that in the journal I would make a notation of the date and what I had done that day -- sewing, knitting, whatever applied to it. It was pretty funny at first because I would get to that point at the end of the day and I would think, 'Oh my gosh, I hadn't done anything yet', so I'd run back upstairs to the sewing machine room and sew madly for 15 minutes so I could come back downstairs and write in there that I had done something.
[laughter.] And then when I had finished a project I write in real big, capital letters, FINISHED and underline it. I keep a running tally down the side of the page on how many projects I finished that year. Sometimes finishing a project is just putting the binding on it but it's finished -- because you get a real buzz from finishing something. Now, I sew every day. I've got a hand sewing area set up in the living room where all those things I might need to hand sew something or to knit. Then in my sewing room whenever I leave my machine I always leave the next thing ready so I don't have to think about what I'm going to do in either one of those places. If I feel like hand work, I can sit down in the living room and it's there waiting for me. If I want to machine sew, I can sit down at my sewing machine, I don't even have to think about what to do next, there's something there waiting for me. Because when I get home from teaching or doing whatever, I'm too tired to think a lot of times and we plop down someplace because we're exhausted and you sort of zone out and so by being prepared it don't make any difference if I've zoned out because I don't have to make a decision. Then, I'm relaxed enough and enthusiastic enough by the time I'm finished sewing that day or that evening that I can organize what I'm going to do tomorrow, so here's the next step, that sort of thing. Nothing I like better than having a whole day to sew and I love going to retreats so I can do that, but how often does that happen? And if you can sew for 15 or 20 minutes every day, at the end of the week you've sewn for two hours, whereas if you don't do that you may never find two hours in a lot of weeks between your volunteer work and your job and your kids and your family and all that stuff. To keep it going, I think that daily productivity is real important to me and also it keeps my skills really well tuned. As much as I piece, if I don't piece everyday my skill starts to slide, my quarter inch isn't as uniform, that sort of thing, so everyday. Everyday.

AM: We talked yesterday a little bit just informally about -- you were showing me some of your quilts when we were talking about the importance of labeling and you have a unique way -- you don't just label finished quilts but you label quilts in progress --

MH: Right --

AM: Can you talk a little bit about that, why you do that?

MH: [coughing.] I think four summers ago a gentleman approached me about helping him liquidate his wife's accumulation of stuff and it was staggering, it took us five weekends of garage sales, one after another to cull it down. One of the things that I saw happen during that was the unfinished projects go for -- what I was telling you about -- a set of Baltimore album, hand appliqué blocks -- I believe -- my recollection was that they were twenty blocks in the set. They were eighteen inches so the big ones and if you've done any Baltimore work you know how intensive that is. I would guess each block probably took her -- I don't -- I can't imagine. Hours -- twenty hours perhaps. I sold them to a good quilt maker who I knew would make a quilt -- I sold them for $80, that's $2 a block. That was just horrifying for me to see all that work and all that great stuff she had just going for pennies so what I do now is when I finish a quilt I also make the backing and the binding -- lots of times I don't get to the quilting until I need to actually give it to somebody or enter it in a show or whatever I'm going to do. I actually travel with a lot of un-quilted teaching samples because they're easier to fold up and travel around with but then I put somebody's name on that bundle so that when something does happen to me they won't put that quilt in the garage sale -- it'll go to Fred or it'll go to Jane or it'll go to whoever -- they'll have to finish it obviously but their quilt's not going to get discarded or cast off. We can’t assume that because our families know we quilt that they know the value of everything but they don't. They don't really understand it so you need to have projects as far along as you can and assign them to somebody I think.

AM: How does your birding cross over into quilting, or does it?

MH: It's my release I guess from quilting. I've done it for a really long time. I started birding when I was 10 years old. When I say to people I've been birding over 50 years, they look at me and they go 'Yeah, right'. No really, I've been birding over 50 year. I guess the way that I see it crossing over though is that I'm out in nature a lot so I think that being outdoors so much that the color schemes of nature and that sort of thing have a real big impact on the way I work. The red and black quilt we looked at is actually the result of my birding in Costa Rica, in the rain forests of Costa Rica and in the rain forests in New Zealand. That's where the whole idea for the color combination originated. That's not your traditional "Bride's bouquet" color combination and I call it 'Rainforest Ferns' because I was so fascinated by the ferns so -- you don't see the reflection of nature so much in my teaching quilts but in the personal quilts that I make that nobody sees, they stay at the house -- you see influences of that.

AM: Of those personal quilts, are they -- would you consider them a traditional quilt, an art quilt, somewhere in between or do you, can you categorize?

MH: They tend to be more towards art quilts -- more spontaneous quilts, that sort of thing and -- oh I would say within 4 or 5 years after I opened the shop I realized that I really didn't like people copying everything I did. At that point I started making some of the quilts for me more than to sell a product. Those are the things that stay at home. And actually this quilt (the double wedding ring) became more of a quilt for me, even though that's not the way I started -- I got so -- I just love making little fabric combinations -- I've done that for 30 years with selling fabric so that one sort of veered off --

AM: [quietly spoken.] I like that.

MH: This one actually hangs in the living room.

AM: Oh. I just have a couple more questions and then you can, if I've missed anything --

MH: Okay --

AM: You can fill in. What do you think makes a great quilt?

MH: I heard you ask this question yesterday and I thought, 'Is she going to ask me that, how am I going to answer it?' And the thought that came into my mind first so that's what I want to say first is that what I think makes a great quilt is that the person who made it just loves it. That’s what I think makes a great quilt -- because then that means that that person is going to go on and make another quilt and go on and make another quilt and go on and make another quilt. So I think that's what really makes a great quilt. It's such a personal art form and it really doesn't make any difference what anybody else thinks of that quilt as long as I like it and that to me is what makes a quilt great.

AM: What do you think -- is the most exciting thing going on in the quilt world right now?

MH: [noise of sucking air through teeth.]

AM: Or it could be -- what strikes you about what's going with the quilt world right now?

MH: Can I tell you what I'm concerned about that's going on in the quilt world right now?

AM: Absolutely.

MH: What I'm concerned about is the control that the fabric companies have over the fabric selections that we're working with because they're marketing them to us in coordinated groups and we think that we can't break those groups up. When I started buying fabric there were no coordinated groups and so I had to learn how to coordinate fabric and how to teach my students to coordinate fabric and if you would talk to a lot of my students, they would tell you that at first they really didn't like it because I would never tell them if I liked something or if I didn't like something. But that wasn't important. What was important was for them to begin to develop the confidence to put their own fabric combinations together, so that really concerns me because new quilters and even teachers who haven't been teaching for a long time and shopkeepers who haven't had a shop for long time don't have that experience. They've always had coordinated assortments of fabric to buy from and to work from and so they think that you can't break into other things. I do that constantly. I almost do it defiantly because I'll take a big -- well again that red and black quilt -- the red print is a very contemporary print and it's the kind of thing that people buy and then take it home and they're afraid to cut it up so it becomes a dust cover and in about 5 or 6 years you pull it out and you think 'Who bought that piece of fabric, it is so ugly', because it was very trendy. But by using -- by ignoring the style of the print, and using the colors in it, every other fabric that's in those pieced blocks is probably 15 to 20 years old so that to me is a real challenge and a lot of fun and it gives me a real sense of accomplishment -- I love to cut the stuff up and sew it back together as much as anybody does but after a while you need to have more going on than just cutting it up, sewing it back together in order to keep a sustained interest. So that's the thing that concerns me. And I don't know how we move out of that. It's up to teachers I think to help people move out of that -- give them the confidence to do that and you have do that by asking people questions -- the right questions so that they reflect on the decisions they're making rather than looking to other people to validate those choices.

AM: Right. Is there anything I didn't ask you or anything else you'd like to add?

MH: There's lots of things you didn't ask me but --

AM: Would have liked to been asked --

MH: Well, yeah -- the only other thing I would say is that if you've got lots of unfinished projects I think you really need to do something about that -- because, it's -- I call it 'dumpster food' you know, if people don't know what to do with it that's what's going to happen to it. That would be a real shame. Sometimes it means you have to let go of something -- if it's been laying in your stash for 15 years and you haven't done anything to it, obviously you've lost interest and so you need to do something with it. If it's a kit and it still hasn't been cut or anything like that I just take it all apart and sort it all out into the color groups and my stash, it kind of freshens everything up. If it's already started -- blocks or you know, these borders or something like that, I have a group of friends that we make quilts that we donate to a couple different charities and we start with those all the time and it's -- we've been doing it for 4 years. We've gotten to be so creative about the way we assemble things -- and it's really been a real lift to our creativity. We've gotten rid of all kinds of unfinished projects, lots of ugly fabric -- we're not making ugly quilts, we're making nice quilts but it's been really stimulating to work that way and anytime you get some of those unfinished projects off your back it really lightens things up, it really does. So that would be my advice to quilt -- anybody who's been quilting more than 10 years, start getting those unfinished projects moving out, moving out -- lighten your load --

AM: Yeah --

MH: Because there's more new stuff coming next week, they're all going to market. Right.

AM: Well, I'd like to thank Mary Huey --

MH: Thank you --

AM: For allowing me to interview her today for the Quilter's SOS -- Save Our Stories oral history project and thank you for being here to watch our interview and we are going to conclude at 12.47pm. Thanks a lot.

MH: Thanks.
[applause before tape end .]


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