Marilyn Mowry




Marilyn Mowry


Marilyn Mowry talks about her love of antique quilts, including her membership in the “19th-century Patchwork Divas" group.




Marilyn Mowry


Helen Kamphuis

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Susan Quinn


Houston, Texas


Helen Kamphuis: This is Helen Kamphuis, today's date is the third of November and the time is 10 o'clock, ten past ten. I'm conducting an interview with, please say your name.

Marilyn Mowry: Marilyn Mowry

HK: Thank you, for Quilters' S.O.S.-Save Our Stories, a project of the Alliance for American Quilters. Marilyn and I are at the International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas. Marilyn, will you tell me about the quilt that you brought today?

MM: I have to go backwards a little bit. I am not a math student, every math class I ever took in my entire life I failed and so I taught my husband a little bit about quilting so he could draft the patterns for me. The hardest to explain to him was seam allowance. As he is so supportive of my hobby he agreed to be the mathematician. I saw a particular quilt at the Houston International Quilt Show-I believe this was in 2008. This was an exhibit that Carrie and Nancy put on, and I bought the book they published with photos of the exhibit in it. There is a little quilt, made about 1850 that I fell in love with. I gave the picture to my husband and said, "Okay, make a pattern for this quilt & I will reproduce it--and he did. The really interesting thing about this, it's not made like any other quilt, that we've seen. I one that Terry Clothier Thompson, quilter, author, and designer of fabric had and it was from 1840. I made the quilt with the pattern my husband made but when we came to the last part we could not figure out how the outside borders had been put on.We worked on it and worked on it and worked on it, and one night in the middle of the night my husband sat straight up in bed and said, "I got it!" He wasn't awake and then he laid back down. The outside borders don't go top, bottom, left, right, they are a great big huge triangle.You can see it with you look closer at the quilt. I love this quilt because my husband helped me, and he not only helped me figure out the math, he would correct the pattern if he didn't want me to cut off a part as some quilters did on early quilts. He also helped me figure out colors.

HK: You explained it's a lot different to other quilts, what do you mean?

MM: Just the setting of it.

HK: What do you mean about the setting?

MM: Most borders go one on each side of the quilt. This quilt we couldn't figure out because the geese ran across the corner of the quilt. Instead of a straight border this quilt has huge triangles attached to the main section of the quilt as 4 large triangles made up of many pieces. I think I did a fairly good job at reproducing this quilt from a small photo in a book.

HK: It looks very similar.

MM: Looks a lot like that. That is, they have 1850 on it, so I think one of the other ones I saw just like this was 1840 to 1850, maybe even into 1860 and I tried to be true to the fabric. It means a lot to me because my husband helped.

HK: Does your husband help you with more quilts or just this one?

MM: I've made 350 quilts.

HK: 350, okay [laughs.]

MM: That's why I forgot to put a this label on this one ! They all, (most of them) still live with me! I consider myself a first generation quilter who taught her mother how to quilt. I am in a group called The 19th Century Patchwork Divas. We have had exhibits in Houston [Texas.] two times. Once in 2004 and then in 2008. We just had a book published with our quilts by Kansas City Star. Our quilts are made with new reproduction fabric & are made to reproduce the look of quilts from the 1800's.This has been an exciting year, the Kansas City Star book and this book I am in Lone Star III. Next year is going to be very dull and boring.

HK: It's not 2012 yet, you never know. If you could describe yourself, what kind of quilter are you, a traditionalist?

MM: I probably started quilting in 1985. I live in the Dallas -Fort Worth [Texas.] area & at that time there might have been many one or two quilt shops in the area.I would hire a babysitter to watch my children while I drove thirty miles to the quilt shop.The first quilt that I made was a two color quilt which I really liked.I've just gotten away from that two color quilt,obviously, with this very very scrappy quilt. My next quilts were for my boys. I made their quilts like comforters & tied them. Today my boys don't particularly care for the old quilt look, so I have no idea what I'm going to do with over 350 quilts! When I die that's someone else's problem, but we have to make sure the oldest son doesn't sell them on eBay, that's final [laughs.] I'll come back to haunt him. The organization I'm in, The 19th Century Patchwork Divas have some very intricate & exquisite quilts we have reproduced. I hope someone in my family might be appreciative of them & treat them with tenderness & care.

HK: How do you get your fabric then?

MM: There's very few shops that have reproduction fabric in the Dallas Fort Worth [Texas.] area so we frequent them as often as we can.I think I forgot to say we're a block exchange, so my quilt, this particular quilt that is in the Lone Star III book was a block exchange.There were probably 18 to 20 participants in this quilt. It has my name on it but, I didn't make all these blocks myself, I just put them together.

HK: Do you work a lot with other quilters? It's a collaborate--

MM: We meet a couple times a year, then we decide what we want to reproduce usually out of the state study books.we buy books like the New Jersey book, the Virginia book, etc. The farther north you go in this country, the books seen to have many more wonderful,traditional quilts.We'll see a quilt that we want to try and reproduce.We'll select our colors, we'll set the time period, and then we'll make the blocks. Then its up to us to set it in what ever way we want it. There's another quilt in the Lone Star book similar to this but set totally different. You might not even recognize that these are actually the same blocks. When our group meets we have one member who really keeps us grounded. She does all the, "use this fabric, no use of this one, here's the measurements and oh by the way, you'll be murdered in your bed if you don't turn it in on time."

HK: [laughs.] Okay, okay, harsh woman [laughs.]

MM: We actually have probably had forty-two exchanges or something like that and we probably made a total of 250 quilts. There are probably that many in bags that just don't get completed.

HK: Do you prefer working in a group together making a quilt or do you--

MM: We actually don't sew together.We very seldom have sew in days.It's getting harder to find a place that you can get for the weekend or one or two weeks, but we all try to get together once a year for our Diva retreat.have a Diva retreat once a year. I don't like quilts in bags, or unfinished projects so I seem to be an overachiever & finish most of my projects within a reasonable time.

HK: That retreat, the idea comes, you think of what you're going to make?

MM: Well no, for this last one that we just had, we just brought whatever we wanted to. I finished five projects. We do have retreats where we do have a famous author & fabric maker for a major fabric company come & teach once a year. She lets us know of the project ahead of time. This one is open to the public. The Diva retreat is just for the Divas to participate in.

HK: Are there other quilt makers in your family?

MM: No. Well, I think one of my sisters does make quilts and purses and clothing. So basically out of six children there's just the two of us.

HK: Okay.

MM: Our mother never seemed to get very good at it [laughs.] She tried then she would ask me for advice.

HK: You influenced your mother or it was--

MM: I think I was a quilter before she was.

HK: Do you have a studio or a sewing place?

MM: I have a very small room and I am evidently very neat because people tell me that when they come to the room.I don't like to look for something for an hour and a half. I have a lot of elfa unit drawers that I keep my fabric in.

HK: How much time would you be spending on your quilts?

MM: Everyday.

HK: Everyday?

MM: Everyday I need to decide on the project I need to work on. I also listen to books on tapes so I get two for one--I get to listen to my book and I get to sew. I've taken a couple weeks off to do yard work, dig up the yard, plant things, etc. With the Diva Exchanges, you do have deadlines, you have to get this amount done by a certain time. Due dates really come quickly sometimes!

HK: [laughs.] Why do you keep staying then in the group if they're so--

MM: I BEGGED to get in this group.

HK: Okay.

MM: And with the internet, people know who we are all over the world and it's really, really fun because we can almost say, in fact we have, we don't need to go through the whole title, we just say, "Divas," "You're a Diva? How do I become one?" What's really interesting is after we got here in 2008, we had people keep coming up to us saying, "How do you this? How do you get a group organized? How do you do a block exchange?" It's not even hard, you just have to decide what you're going to do, sorta have a little bit of a leader, and you have to do it. Hopefully this book that just came out that Kansas Star published, I'm so bad I can't remember if it's history revisited or history reviewed and that tells you a little bit about how you can do a block exchange.

HK: Okay.

MM: Supposedly we are the only group in the whole United States that have stayed grounded and stayed focused in continue on with this [inaudible.] This actually is one, I did this one [inaudible.]

HK: It says on the form that you've also owned or worked in a quilt shop?

MM: Yes. I'm an R.N. [Registered Nurse.] actually, in my first life, and I haven't done that for a while but I was at the quilt shop all day and I was spending so much money, that was before the price of yard, yard had gone up so much, and so I said, "I need a job," and I ended up over there for about seven years. But you get to see everything new that comes in and you actually come home with more ideas because you think, "I saw a quilt somewhere and this would look good." It got me in trouble a lot, but I made a lot of things. I miss it a little bit, I miss the people, there's some very nice people that I worked with .

HK: [laughs.] If I understand correctly, you were very focused on the history of quilting, have you participated in other preservation projects?

MM: No, just selfish I guess [laughs.] No I haven't, I should. I'm not in a guild right now, which would be helpful too. A lot of people really don't like this period of quilts, they don't like the look, they say, "Oh," I've actually had people say, "They look dark and dirty."

HK: I don't agree [laughs.]

MM: I don't either, but I guess I can understand that because if I ever do stop and make a great baby quilt, I call it eye candy because it's so much different than what I do. There are the bubblegum pinks and the blues and greens and the chrome yellows that are really really bright, so there were bright colors back then, but this is a good amount darker and a lot of people like that.

HK:What attracts you to this period?

MM: I thought about and I thought about it, and I have no idea. It's why did I like quilting and everything else I could think of to make.It was like I came home with quilting and that's where I stayed for all those years. I don't know, why do I like this? When I get to the 1900s I don't like that time period much.

HK: Is it the color or their kind of patterns or--

MM: . The very first time I ever tried to reproduce a quilt, I can't even remember what year it was, probably twenty years ago, there were not reproduction fabrics to speak of. I actually turned things over backwards. It was a challenge trying to get the look of the old quilts.There's another lady in our group who also likes to make very close replicas of the old quilts. She and I both get magnifying glasses out and we actually look at an old quilt that way. Then we try to find a fabric in our stash to represent that old piece.

HK: You just explained already a little bit what draws you to quilting and why this quilt, but could you kind of elaborate a little bit more why you are drawn to quilting?

MM: The really funny thing is there's an awful lot of brown in these and I never could wear brown because of my coloring .I always hated brown and now I love brown. Our group has been told that our quilts are so correct to the period that if we don't put labels on them in a 100 years no one will be able to tell the reproduction one from the original older quilt.

HK: The original.

MM: The original, that 100 years from now, they will not know if it was 2010 or 1870. I'm sure they'd be able to figure out that it's machine quilted but still, they look that close to what we see in the original. I have a tendency to want to duplicate the originals, a lot of people will set their's differently which is why we were able to pull off the book for Kansas City Star because we had different settings for different blocks.Hopefully the book will be a little bit of an education for people out there who might like to do block exchanges.

HK: The quilting, like you just explained is machine quilting. Do you also have handquilted?

MM: A lot of the Divas that quilt their own quilts do a utility stitch which I don't care for.I'm not going to live long enough to handquilt 350 quilts." The quilter that we use loves the reproduction quilts.She tries to be true to the time period of the original quilt with her quilting designs.


HK: But it's not the history that attracts you?

MM: Yes, and it's the fact the some of these women didn't have anywhere near the tools we have now.It the wonderful workmanship these women did before me with limited products.

HK: I think it's a great quilt. Do you, you don't sleep under your own quilts---

MM: No.

HK: That's what you're saying, no, you always use them to show them?

MM: No I just have them folded here. They all live at home, and that's the next problem. We either need to move or I need to quit making quilts. I had some visitors here last week from Australia and I
was asked to show them a lot of my quilts. It was great fun as I get to look at them all again & enjoy them. I don't know what will happen to them all if I am not here one day.

HK: Does it worry you a little?

MM: Yes, I have one son I know is going to sell them on eBay and I'm going to have to come back and haunt him!It did make a difference to them when their mom's was in a book, like, "Oh, maybe there is something to it."

HK: But they don't quite appreciate--

MM: No.

HK: The quilting. Why is it important for you though?

MM: To quilt?

HK: Yeah. Because you're getting some bad feedback from some people and you still continue.

MM: . You know, there's a lot of people that do Batiks and they do brights and they really don't get this. It's like somebody snapped their finger one day and I said, "Okay that's it, that's where I want to be, and that's what I want to do." I do other things too, I do what they call blended quilts which actually have no high contrast at all and I like that a lot too; that's really like painting with fabric. This was a challenge just to find pieces that are large scale & work in the blendes. It's probably selfish, self-gratification, but it makes me happy--

HK: What do you mean it's selfish?

MM: I don't, some days I don't dust the house.

HK: [laughs.] Sometimes I don't do--

MM: I always cook a meal for my husband because that's why he married me because I'm a good cook, and I don't want to lose that. I probably spent a little too much time on it, but that's ok. I don't want to do anything else.

HK: And sometimes you can share with your husband.

MM: Yes, yes.

HK: Which artists influenced you, the historical quilters?

MM: The state study books influence me quit a bit. New Jersey, Virginia, the Carolinas are awesome books to look at for ideas. Barbara Brackman has done a wonderful job with writing history of quilts. Terry Thompson Clothier & Barbara made wonderful fabric lines.

HK: Okay.

MM: I've never done a quilt study, I don't remember things. The older I get the less I remember. I can't tell you when some of the colors in the old fabrics such as bubble gum came out.I should do more studying of the time periods different fabrics were introduced.

HK: [laughs.] How do you want to be remembered as a quiltmaker?

MM: She was very proficient [laughs.] I finish things. I do have some tops, but I don't have tops like a lot of people have, I actually finish them. I put labels on them, they shouldn't be unlabeled. It's interesting because I was thinking, what I wanted on my tombstone and quilter was not one of them. I think I should put that on there. I was fortunate enough getting into the Daughters of the Revolution a couple years ago so I said, "I want D.A.R. on the top of the tombstone." Maybe I better put quilter on there also..

HK: What aspects of quiltmaking do you not enjoy?

MM: I hate making geese, I'm sorry, I'm getting picky now. I don't make them very well. Some times when you making many blocks for an exchange it gets old & boring. What's really fun is to stop on something you have to do, and just do something for yourself, and I don't do that a lot of times. I did do one recently, I did an 1860 Courthouse Steps just for me, and I love it! I did it for no reason so really enjoyed it.

HK: What do you plan with this quilt?

MM: It was folded up and put away with all the other ones at my house.When they said bring one that meant something special to me & there's an awful lot of them that actually do mean something special to me I decided to bring this one.It's very nice to have a supportive husband because everybody doesn't always support their hobby. I have to add one little quick story here. We took our third child off to the University of Texas when he was a junior. He couldn't take a car because you have to have drawn from a lottery for a parking space.So his Father & took him there & dropped him . I let him out of the car and as he said goodbye to us he said, "Dad, please tell me you're not going to go all foo-foo on us and start quilting?" [laughs.] So I think he thinks his father is rather foo-foo now for helping me in this quilting process.

HK: [laughs.] Right.

MM: I thought my husband was colorblind for 25 years. I thought he couldn't tell blues and greens he has fooled me & makes wonderful color combination choices for me.

HK: What do you think is biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?

MM: The price of the fabric, as cotton supposedly is going way up.China had a cotton crop failure, and we've been told, "Don't be surprised if it goes to thirteen dollars a yard!" It's really hard to justify buying fabric when it's up to over ten dollars a yard. It's just amazing, I can't believe it. You figure how many yards there are in a quilt & multiply that by $10 & the quilts are costing quite a bit to make these days.

HK: But that's the only thing that will be confronting, I mean next year maybe a better crop?

MM: I worry about the locals. I worry that they may close and that's where I buy my reproduction fabric. I live in a town of 200,000 and I couldn't find buttons in that town, there's no where to buy thread, buttons.Stores just keep closing or moving. I always need something & have to drive long distances to get these things.

HK: [laughs.]

MM: I really enjoy the whole process of it. I will lay the newest quilt on the floor in the middle of the room when my husband comes home. I like how he notices it and says, "Wow." A lot of my friends just don't get that my husband.

HK: When you were invited for the interview, what message did you want to bring across, what was important for you, or what would you have liked me to ask you?

MM: It was such a pleasure to be asked to be in this book. There are twenty-two of us in our group the 19th Century Patchwork Divas and there are only two of us in this book I have a traditional quilt, There are not that many traditional quilts being show say at quilt shows anymore, so that meant a lot to me to be asked to be in the book. I know this art form has taken a big turn. I know that's a good thing but to me, this is what got us here, the traditional quilts.This quilt in the book Lone Stars III is not my favorite quilt.It was one of the easiest ones I've ever made. It was fun to make & exchange the blocks with my Diva sisters in crime. I am glad this one was picked though as it shows others what they can accomplish without being a master quilter.

HK: But your most important message is that people should focus a little bit more--

MM: Quilt what they want to do. If you like the art quilt, do it. Be creative & enjoy the process. But look at the antique quilts occasionally & appreciate what the women who went before us produced. They didn't have it nearly as easy in their life circumstances as we do. They were the leaders & we have followed in this wonderful art form.

HK: So that's the most important message to focus us on quilt's history?

MM: Yes.

HK: I would like to wind down and finish the interview, unless you say no, okay. I would like to thank you for allowing me to interview for today at the Quilters' S.O.S. and Save Our Stories oral history project, I really appreciate it. Our interview concludes at 10:45. Okay.


“Marilyn Mowry,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 16, 2024,