Mary Perini




Mary Perini


Quilt historian, textile dealer, quilt appraiser, and quilter Mary Perini is interviewed about quilts. She discusses the personal and emotional aspects of quilting, including the stories told by quilts which can be found in their stitching and fabrics. She talks about how she became a quilt historian and then a quilter. Perini also discusses the cultural aspects of quilting, particularly in regard to women's history and women's place in society prior to the feminist movements of the 1960s. Perini talks about how the quilts she is currently creating are influenced by her feelings about September 11, 2001, which occurred 32 days prior to this interview taking place.




Women’s history
Women in history
American women 1600-1900
Crafts & decorating
Textile artists
Textile industry
September 11 Terrorist Attacks. 2001


Mary Perini


Amy Henderson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Emily Klainberg


Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia


Amy Henderson (AH): [tape begins in mid-sentence] ...conducting an interview with Mary Perini at the American Quilt Study Group Conference at Colonial Williamsburg for the Quilts' [Quilters' S.O.S. -] Save Our Stories project on Saturday, October 13th, 2001 at 3:25. Mary, why don't you begin by telling me where you're from?

Mary Perini (MP): I'm from Hagerstown, Maryland which is in the western part of Maryland.

AH: You were raised there, lived there forever?

MP: No, I'm a recent arrival in Hagerstown. I spent most of my life in the metropolitan Washington and Baltimore area and lived close to Annapolis and was a sailor until I moved to Hagerstown.

AH: Oh, that's neat. Did you get to travel around the world or--

MP: No, up and down the east coast.

AH: That's great. Well, you've brought a work in progress today. Tell me about this quilt you're working on. What it's made out of? When you began it? The pattern you chose.

MP: Okay. This is going to be a wall hanging when it's completed. It's about forty inches square. It's one of a series of favorite projects of mine. I deal in vintage textiles. I collect them and sell them and one of the things I do as I'm acquiring quilts for my collection is collect tops. You frequently run across tops that are not completed for one reason or another. This particular project was a huge top that was constructed, I think, around the time of the turn of the last century - 1895 to 1915 and was never completed and was damaged. So I got it as part of the acquisition of major pieces for my collection and took it apart and salvaged the blocks and the muslin. These are feed sacks and on some of the blocks you can still see the feed sack writing. So I had enough to make four wall hangings. So I'm working on a series of them. I have a stack of tops that somebody somewhere, sometime in the past started and they're in beautiful condition, which is one of the factors in doing something with an old top. These are in really great condition and someday I'm going to finish them.

AH: So, this bluish block was part of the original quilt--

MP: The muslin as well--the light and the dark, these. And it was set, as you see it set, which is an alternate of an Ohio Star and then a plain block. I'm going to be putting a wreath quilting design in each of the plain blocks and simply--we call it 'quilting to the pattern.' I'm simply following the outline of the blocks that are the stars. It's a beautiful example of indigo dye, which is one of the reasons I like it.

AH: How long have you been working on your series?

MP: I got the top about a year ago, and I've done two wall hangings. I have two more to get to.

AH: What inspires you to save these quilt tops, and to finish it?

MP: I think the beauty because I'm a quilt historian and I love traditional--all things traditional in quilting. I like new quilts, too, but I find I constantly focus myself back and what appeals to me is traditional quilting. For me, it's a way of honoring those women who made these tops and as I work on them I wonder what she was doing and where she was and why wasn't she able to finish this and what happened. It's almost a form of meditation to think about completing that work and somehow you feel there's a kind of connection to say, 'Here, this is done, you finished this one.'

AH: What do you plan to do with the series once you've completed it?

MP: I use them as gifts. They're about the right size for a nice little place on a wall. I find that particularly with social friends--oh, this is going to sound so bad, you don't want to take the time and effort. Since I hand quilt and hand piece, when I give someone a full-sized quilt, it's a tremendous honor in my mind. You're very particular about who you give that to. This is a way of honoring someone for whom you might not spend the weeks and weeks and weeks to hand quilt a full-sized quilt, but I can hand quilt a wall-hanging and tell them I care about them that way. These have all been gifts. I'll keep one, however, to remember the process.

AH: But you're going to break them up.

MP: Yes, I'm going to break them up.

AH: At what age did you begin to quilt?

MP: I'm fifty-four, and I began when I was forty-nine. I studied quilts as an academic concept, and an emotional one as well. I don't think you can be involved with quilts and not have an emotional reaction but was busy with what I considered my real job, my primary career, and didn't have time to quilt. I knew I would someday, I figured I would be much older than I am, but through a variety of circumstances I decided to leave my career at forty-seven and I had a chance then to pursue things I had always wanted to do. And actually picking up a needle and quilting was one of those things. In nineteen seventy-six, I saw the Bicentennial quilt show in New England and it was like an epiphany of sorts. I thought, 'Oh, I have to learn more about this, I have to know about these quilts.' It started from there, and I've been studying quilts ever since.

AH: So you started it forms a historical perspective--

MP: Then came to it from research, but I also found and I also do appraisals and I work with laces and linens as well as quilts. There's one thing I do know as an appraiser, you will do better in evaluating a piece if you understand its construction. With quilts, you need to know construction because construction can tell you some things about the history of the quilt. I found that I think it makes me a better professional as an appraiser because I do. But I really do it because I like to do it.

AH: Did you have interaction with quilts as a child? What's your earliest quilt memory?

MP: I come from a southern heritage; I have some memories of quilts. My mother's family came from Tennessee. My father's family comes from the Gate City, Virginia area. I cannot remember, and I've thought about this a lot, I remember no quilts in my father's family. They considered themselves prosperous middle-class merchants, and I think they probably would have considered quilts not something they would have had in their home that they would have shared with company. My mother's family is from eastern Tennessee, an area near Chattanooga called Mont Eagle and there's a rich heritage on my mother's side. I remember quilts as a child, but I do not remember quilts that I would consider finely worked quilts. The quilts I saw were utility quilts, meant to be used, meant to be heavy and to keep you warm and they were, 'I can remember sleeping under them.'

AH: When did you begin to sew?

MP: I did not sew until I was a teenager. I did needlework from the time I can remember. Part of my job as a little child from the age of about five, I had to spend Saturday mornings with my maternal grandmother, who taught me to knit, to crochet, to tat, crewel embroidery, Brazilian embroidery. She taught me how to do drawn work, hardanger. I learned most needlework from her and she was a rigid and demanding taskmaster. I still do needlework but I don't do it as a hobby. I think it's because she was so particular about it. But I know a lot about it because of that. I didn't start sewing until I was a teenager and wanted clothing that I did not have the resources to acquire. I learned how to make them in school so it was an academic approach.

AH: How did you learn to quilt?

MP: I took classes. I suppose it's Georgia Bonesteel that I should say taught me to quilt, because I was so busy with things that I considered more real world and from the background I come from if I want to know how to do something, I go get a book that tells me how. The most important books on quilting, between Georgia Bonesteel and Barbara Brackman, they were sort of the foundation. And I still think they're good foundations. If you want to learn about history, start with Barbara Brackman and if you want to learn to quilt go get Georgia's old lap quilting book out and start from there, and then you go on. I started there and then I started taking classes. Because I lived in the Baltimore/Washington metropolitan area I had a wealth of opportunity and places to go that I could fit into my schedule. So where I could, I would take an afternoon off and not think about the real world or computers and go do what I wanted to do. So I learned that way.

AH: Have there been other quilters in your family or in your friends?

MP: Yes. I now have a tremendous group of friends. I would say most of my close friends now are quilting related. I thought about that the other day. Most of my social circle is either in the planet that revolves around quilt history or there is an orbit that revolves around the construction of today's quilts and guild activities because I'm very active in my guild and I'm active in other associations that have nothing to do with quilt history. But you cannot do one without somehow linking into the other. They're not completely divorced. If you consider yourself a modern art quilter, you still need to pay attention to the history of quilting. I think they're related but, yes, I'm strongly involved in a social network that if it isn't family of friends from my career at Johns Hopkins, then it's going to be quilt related.

AH: How does quilting impact your daily life?

MP: It's part of my regimen, just as I walk every day and I try to eat well every day, I quilt for two hours a day. I either quilt in the morning, or I quilt the last thing in the day, every day. I may do other quilt related things, but I quilt two hours a day, every day, and if you do hand quilting, and I quilt on a traditional frame, I find that's sort of my meditation time.

AH: What do you like most, and what do you like least about quilting?

MP: There are people who call themselves quilters who are really piecers and there are people who call themselves quilters who don't like to piece because as you can probably guess since I'm collecting vintage quilting that I'm going to quilt. Piecing is what I have to do to get to quilting. So I'm much more emotionally involved in the actual running stitch that goes through the fabric. I like the tactile relationship I have with those three layers of cloth. I like the feel of the needle. I like to watch the pattern grow. That's probably the most magical part. I will piece, and I like to sew, so I don't dislike it. But I think if you say, 'What do you like best?' It's the quilting part.

AH: What makes a quilt artistically powerful?

MP: This is very personal, so if I were judging a quilt I might not give the same answer, and if I were evaluating a quilt for purchase to put in a collection and I had to consider its economic value for resale, I would not give you the same answer. For me personally, the play of light and dark, the shadow created by artistic quilting on the surface of the quilt. For me, that's where my evaluation of it as an artistic piece goes.

AH: So what about those other two categories: if you're judging a quilt or--

MP: If I were judging a quilt, I think you have to equally value construction, which is very important in being fair as a judge. Piecing or appliqué work has everything to do with construction. Balance has a great deal to do with it. I think you aren't drawn to things artistically if there isn't some sort of balance and symmetry. Value and tonal relationships are part of all of it. When I'm looking at a piece for resale, there's a fairly calculated assessment of what's hot and what's not, and who's collecting what. If it's red or it's blue, it's going to be more important. There are certain patterns that sell. There are certain looks that are in style or out of style. There are times you couldn't give away a certain kind of quilt, there are other times suddenly it's important as a decorator piece. An awful lot of collecting I think of as collecting in quotes. That is, you're really buying a furnishing to fit into a décor. So there is an aesthetic issue there. So when you're looking at it for resale, you must take that into consideration.

AH: What makes a great quilter?

MP: Oh, what a good question. I'll get emotional--all of the people that I love, both as part of this organization, AQSG [American Quilt Study Group.], and part of my guild - I'm also part of an old-fashioned quilting bee that meets at my house every Thursday afternoon. I love them, and part of the reason that I love them is there seems to be a shared sense of values. If you care about tradition and you care about the feel, there is an involvement, in both the tactile as well as the visual that seems to attract women. Most of the people who I know are quilters are women, with few exceptions. It seems to attract a person who cares about things and is aware of her surroundings. With the people I love who are quilters, there is a generosity of spirit, there's a caring. All of my quilting activities have some relationship to some task we're doing to help others. I'm not in any quilting organization that doesn't have something going on that is an outreach to other people. I think that's part of what it means to be a quilter.

AH: To what degree are quilts storytellers, whether they're narrative quilts or they're antique tops like the ones you collect?

MP: I'm not so sure the quilt brings the majority of a story. Sometimes I think if you are a quilt lover, you imbue a quilt with things that it probably didn't have. So I think there's a tremendous emotional factor here. Quilts do tell a story. There are times I look at quilts when I know historically they were bad times, I can see reflected in the quilt bad times. You can see poor quality materials, poor workmanship; sometimes you can see, in some cases you see stains. They can tell you things. When times are good in there, you're looking at rich, expensive French fabrics and dense laces and trims. You know something good was going on here. So they can tell those kinds of stories. They tell stories about the aesthetics of the maker. But sometimes I'm not so sure they come to you with the stories as much as we help interpret the stories, because we love them.

AH: What do you love about quilt history?

MP: I think what I love most about it is--I'm a child of the sixties so I'm conscious of always feeling as though women's stories weren't told and trying to participate during my adult life, particularly as a professional, to see that there was a place. A place for myself and then when I was a manager that I made sure there was a place for others, and that I paid attention. I now know, particularly as a grandmother, because I'm now a grandmother, I know that my biggest job is to prepare the way. I see that in my own view of quilts as well, that there is something that helps me link back into our heritage, not necessarily my own personal heritage, but I get a link back to the women that were there then. Because I've made it my business to study how their lives were, I've learned more. That helps me to understand what my job is now.

AH: Why is quilting important in your life?

MP: Because I enjoy it. At this point in my life, I don't do anything I don't enjoy.

AH: That's a good philosophy. What do you think about the importance of quilts in American life?

MP: We have to take into account that today is thirty-two days after September 11. So my answer is different today than it would have been thirty-two days ago, or thirty-three days ago. I would have made quilts much more important, but I would have made anything that had to do with our heritage, our keeping track of where we come from more important in my mind than it is now. I still think it's important. I still think there's a place, and that we do have to try to know about our heritage, to understand it and communicate it. So I think there is a place, I would not have answered it the same way. It's not as important to me right at this moment.

AH: Can quilting help you work through the--

MP: Oh, it is. That's why I have this piece with me that we're discussing today. I have found for the past thirty days that I've had to touch fabric every day because that's one of the ways that I get in touch with myself. Even when you quilt in a bee, quilting is a solitary activity. If you are doing something to the fabric, then the fabric is there for you. Even if you're talking around a quilting frame and we've been doing that, it's still a personal interaction with the textile. For me, that is very soothing, very calming. So I simply cannot go through my day without doing something with the fabric. So it's been a great source of comfort, along with other things, but it's been part of it.

AH: Do you think you'll associate the events of September 11th with this series of quilts?

MP: Yes. The pattern I've chosen in the wreath. I've chosen it deliberately because its symmetry is never ending, it's a circle. Along with the fear and the dread I have because if what my country may do and I do believe that it must do but I also know in my heart what troubles me is there is some grandmother in Afghanistan who is going to lose her son, her daughter, grandchild; she's starving, she's cold, people are dropping bombs on her head. She lives inside a nation where she doesn't have any freedoms. I mourn for her. That circle represents that feeling, so it's helping me work it out.

AH: You've mentioned that you've already completed two of the tops that are part of the series. Did you do them before September 11th or--

MP: No. I've really been whipping them out here.

AH: So they're all post-September 11th and do they all have the wreaths?

MP: Yes.

AH: They're going to be joined in this shared--

MP: And they'll have a label on the back saying when I did it, and what I like to indicate what my emotional state is when I do a quilt. Just that this is what I was thinking about, there is that eternal circle that is a prayer for peace, and it makes me feel better.

AH: What questions do you think we should be asking quilts, quilt historians, quiltmakers today?

MP: I think the question we need to ask quilt historians that they don't ask themselves enough is 'Why?' We tend to get imbued in the minutia. It's just a hazard we deal with and sometimes we forget to look up and look around and go, 'Okay, this may not really matter that there's double rodding in this patch.' That it may just simply be that's what the lady liked to do. We take ourselves too seriously sometimes. What I'd like to know from quilters is always, 'Why? What were you thinking? Why did you do it this way? Why'd you pick that color? Why'd you choose that design? Why is it this size and not that size?' I always like to know, 'Who are you going to give it to? Where's it going to go?' I love to hear the stories of why women are making things. Generally it is women. I realize there are men who quilt. I think the 'why.'

AH: Who are you giving this one to?

MP: This one's going to go on my son's office wall. He saw me working on it and asked for it. So I think as most quilters do, when someone expresses an interest and appreciation for a piece, you like to give a piece to someone you know is going to care for it, especially when you're doing it by hand. You may be aware of how many hours it took and you don't particularly want to give it to someone who's going to use it to let the dog have a little rest. [laughs.]

AH: An understatement.

MP: They will all go to members of my family. So in a sense they won't be out into the world. They'll be part of my family history.

AH: When you're working on these antique tops, do you derive any sense of what you think the original piecer was feeling or thinking when she was putting together? I realize this is a completely bizarre question. Do you bring something to this that you think she brought?

MP: With this particular top it's probably not something where I would respond yes. But I have done tops for example, why would a woman go through the tremendous trouble of creating a pattern such as a drunkard's path, which in my mind because I don't particularly enjoy curved seaming, is a complicated quilt to make. Particularly if I can tell by the material if it was pre-Prohibition, then I do wonder when I'm working on it. I wonder if this was a political statement she was making, as well as an artistic statement as she chose the pattern and chose the color. I wish so much I could zone in on a little séance and go, 'Okay, which was it? Did you just think this was a pretty pattern, or were your avenues of expression limited and this is what you chose to do? By choosing a Drunkard's Path, I think you're making a very strong statement, if it's a political statement that you would like to see Prohibition the law of the land.' I'd love to know the answer to questions like that. So sometimes it's strongly there. Other times, no, I don't think about it.

AH: Could you elaborate a little bit more on the question, What ways do quilts have special meaning for women's history and experience in America?'

MP: Well, unfortunately, in so many ways we haven't captured women's history well. So we don't have a lot of avenues available to us that we could have had if the process of the daily work of maintaining hearth and home were considered more valuable. I think what is grossly undocumented is how valid our view of women's role in hearth and home is. Because I've always felt as a history student that before the Industrial Revolution there probably wasn't a whole lot of hearth and home for the average person who did not have the resources to maintain a hearth and home. I'm not sure we have it very well in history. I don't think we have the story good. Quilts are one of those valuable avenues where we have an expression of something that women cared enough about to take their time to create. If we analyze it well, it may give us some clues into what they were thinking, what their world was like, statements they tried to make. We know in some of the quilts there's a message there if we can interpret it correctly. We can tell a lot of things. We can tell economic status, we can tell ability. We know something about those women by looking at the work they did. Since we don't have a lot of resources, they're valuable because of that.

AH: Is there anything else you'd like to let future historians and quiltmakers know that I haven't had a chance to ask you today?

MP: At the risk of belittling, well, everything I've said before, sometimes I'm worried we might forget that it's supposed to be fun, and that we should not take ourselves or history so seriously that we forget to enjoy what we're doing.

AH: You seem to enjoy it.

MP: I do, I really do.

AH: Great, well that's a good lesson. And that's a good one to take home. I'd like to thank Mary for talking with me today for the Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories project. This interview was concluded at 3:55 p.m. Thank you.

MP: You're welcome.

[tape ends.]

Interview Keyword

Vintage quilts
Quilt making
Antique quilts
Quilt tops
Cultural aspects of quilts
Women and quilts
Domestic crafts
Cult of domesticity


“Mary Perini,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 27, 2024,