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New Pathways into Quilt History written by Kimberly Wulfert, www.antiquequiltdating.com

Quilt Historian Interview with:

Mary Bywater Cross
Quilt Historian, Curator and Artist

Contact Information:

Mary Bywater Cross
2141 NW Davis St. #503
Portland, OR 97210-3578
11 Shoreland Dr. Lopez Island, WA 98261
Cell (503) 784-0581

1) How do you prefer to be described, within the field of textile history?
If you have a business, please tell us about that.

“I prefer the titles of quilt historian, artist, and consultant."

2) When and where did you begin your serious interest in the history of quilts, textiles or garments?

"After my grandmother Harriet Smith McNeill introduced me to quilts through the small family collection she inherited, my interest was whetted. In 1979-1980, I was able to take a yearlong college-level course at the Oregon School of Arts and Crafts, now known as the Oregon College of Arts and Crafts. The course, taught by one of my mentors, the late Marie Lyman, included quilt history, construction, and piecing and quilting techniques from around the world.

"The time was early in the current quilt revival. It was relatively easy to access the few books available and to be very thorough in our study. Marie was a perfectionist, a detail person. She had trained as a librarian and was consumed by a passion for textiles and quilts. We did everything by hand and were required to present in class our papers and projects for critique. She taught us to look at older quilts for design ideas and pattern research. Quilt Engagement Calendars were the best resource. As a class, we reproduced a classic Amish quilt in wool.

"The impact on me was major. From that course, I defined my direction in making quilts from new wool cloth of my own designs drawing on my Iowa background of my grandmother saving buttons and wool squares from old clothes."

3) What “known” individual (or group) influenced you most and why?

"The members of the American Quilt Study Group

"I was introduced to the group in the fall of 1981 by DeLoris Stude, the long-time coordinator of the West Coast Quilters’ Conference. She invited me to attend the annual seminar. My first roommate was Lucy Hilty, one of the “stars” of “Quilts in Women’s Lives.” I thought I had really arrived!

"After that first seminar in the early ‘80s, I was inspired to create a regional quilt study group, the Columbia-Willamette Quilt Study Group, based on the guidelines from the book Independent Scholar and the research paper presentation concept of AQSG. I thought that perhaps papers could first be prepared and presented locally and then be proposed for the AQSG Seminar. Instead, the group evolved to be more of a contemporary quilt group with a focus on quilt history, studio tours, gallery exhibitions, and special events.

"Now, when the group meets for the annual retreat, two important projects are conducted. One is the Lottery for Latimer, the Quilt and Textile Center in Oregon. Members bring items to contribute, make a donation to Latimer, and have the right to choose an item. The other project is a social outreach for the Dougy Center, the International Center for Grieving Children based in Portland. Each year, the associate director Joan Schweizer-Hoff identifies a textile project we can do at the retreat.
Over the years I have maintained an active membership in AQSG serving on the Board of Directors in the early ‘90s; presenting two seminar papers; and donating auction items; and serving as a mentor for new scholars. One of those new scholars is Bill Volckening from Portland who is now contributing regularly to the AQSG internet discussion group. My legacy to the organization has been the Regional Coordinator Program I structured and developed. I am extremely pleased the program continues today with regional study groups and area representatives in 35 states and Canada."

4) Who became your personal mentor as you began your learning?

"Marie Lyman was my first mentor. After the overview study course, we scheduled a c
onference to help me define the direction I wished to take my quilt interests. She helped me focus my interest on researching and writing quilt history and on making woolen quilts. She encouraged me to travel, to inquire, and to use the skills I had learned in library science for research. When I began to teach my workshops, I organized the class format in a similar manner to Marie’s – a participatory class with students making presentations.

"Over the years, we supported each other’s passions and professional goals. In the late ‘80s, we curated an exhibition of new traditional and contemporary blue and white quilts for the University of Oregon Museum of Art. That exhibition traveled internationally for two years.

"Unfortunately, she took her life in October 2000. She suffered breast cancer and on-going depression.

"I was able to orchestrate a fitting tribute to Marie by having her signature quilt “Morning Light Studio” donated to the International Quilt Study Center along with a variety of her teaching materials and notes. She is now recognized as one of those artists working in the early days of the quilt revival to create quilts as works of art."

5) What aspect of study were you most passionate about at first? How has this changed over time and why?

"I continue most passionate about quilts as valid documents of human experience. I love researching historic quilts, the link to the makers, and their life experience and community. Initially, I check in the quilt’s physical aspects – the size, date, types of fabrics, and place it was made. Then, I’m fascinated in what I can learn about the quilt’s intended function; the maker’s social, economic, and cultural life; and the aesthetic influences from her community. These were my research guidelines as I studied migration quilts; lectured for six years for the Oregon Council for the Humanities as a Chautauqua speaker; and now serve as an advisor to the Oregon Quilt Documentation Project. It is an amazing adventure to meet people in their communities; seek out their quilts; and listen to them share their experiences; and then to expand their appreciation and awareness of their quilt’s place in history."

6) What is your current pet project?

Two projects are scheduled for 2011.

"In March, contemporary quilt artist Barb Nepom and I are co-curating an exhibit of our works for the Lopez Island Library in Washington state. Barb does wonderful art quilts of hand-dyed fabrics and I do the woolen quilts. Our pieces complement each other beautifully. We exhibit together during the Lopez Island Studio Tour held each Labor Day Weekend on the island.

"Also in our show we’ll feature the small quilts by quiltmaker Andrea Leong Balosky between 1999-2002. These began as a project using her scraps and evolved to be one of recognizing people she admired who came to mind as she was stitching each piece.

"In October, the three-month exhibition I’m curating of the quilts from my Oregon Trail Quilt Project will be hung at the Willamette Heritage Center at Salem, Oregon’s Mission Mill Museum. This will be the first exhibit since the original touring one in 1993. My book has been revised; renamed Quilts of the Oregon Trail and expanded with new quilts, resources and a focus on women’s roles in the building of community in the Pacific Northwest."

7) What aspect of your research or contribution to textile studies has satisfied you the most?

"I continue to be most satisfied with opportunities to introduce quilters and non-quilters to the world of quilts. I receive great pride in being able to “pass along” expertise, knowledge, quilts, and opportunities in the field to other scholars and museums. These are the kinds of activity I feel are important to broaden the audience for quilt history and to increase our support.

"In 2009, I passed the responsibility for the leadership of the Columbia-Willamette Quilt Study Group to textile historian Martha Spark. I was thrilled when she approached me about having a study group in Oregon. I immediately offered her the name and concepts I had used to create it originally in the early 1980s. My role has been to be supportive and to make formal presentations on the quilts I encounter in my continuing travels.

"Martha also expressed an interest in re-establishing the Oregon Quilt Documentation Project which I had begun in the early 1990s. Again, I was thrilled to pass the leadership to Martha and Bill Volckening, as co-chairmen. My role is as an advisor and a resource.

"In recent years, I’ve seen subjects resurface that I was initially interested in twenty-thirty years ago. I was able to exhibit a quilt from the family of the artist Grant Wood at an exhibit at the Virginia Quilt Museum. Then, I worked with Mary Robare, the curator, to have the quilt permanently donated to the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester where the Quaker family originally resided.

"In 2008, I lectured at Bath’s American Museum in Britain. While there I presented to their collection one of the quilts from the Oregon Trail Quilt Project, much to the thrill of the donor, her family, and the museum. The quilt connected the time period of the museum’s major collection to the Oregon Trail experience and enriched their quilt collection.

"My books have continued to have “lives of their own.” The most recent project was the use of the quilt patterns as part of the public art on Portland’s light rail system at the Clackamas Town Center station. Artist Richard Elliot designed 42 cut steel panels showcasing each of the pieced patterns. A further compliment was to have my Cross and Crown logo used as one of the patterns.

"A follow-up project I did was to use 12 panels as the deck railing at Cross Bywater, my Lopez Island home. They are magnificent!"

8) Within this arena, what would you like to do, but haven’t done yet?

As I read over my previous answers to this question, I realized I have been very fortunate to be able to achieve lecturing abroad; contributing locally to the historical activities within my region’s museums; and pursuing my interests in making woolen quilts. I have been blessed!"

9) Any further comments are invited.

"The woolen quilts I make are also an important part of my quilt art. Currently I’m working to reduce my inventory of beautiful woolen fabrics. I have several on-going projects to achieve this goal.

"One is to create commission quilts where I invite the client to select a “focus fabric” from my inventory. Then I create the one-of- a-kind piece to their requested size. I reflect on our friendship as I work using fabrics or buttons from their family’s collections and further personalize each piece by using handquilting designs meaningful to them. When I present the quilt, I include construction and artistic statements.

"Another project is participating in the Lopez Island Studio Tour each Labor Day weekend. This is an opportunity for me to make smaller pieces relating to the buyer’s personal connection to the San Juan Islands and their history. Because many people arrive on bicycles, I also make table runners and narrow wall quilts that can be rolled up and put in a bicycle bag."

10) Please describe (in a list) the contributions you have made via books, exhibits, presentations, contests, articles, fabric lines, research papers and the like.

Quilt historian, author, curator, artist, and consultant


  • “Quilt Piecing on the Oregon Trail in 1849,” American in Britain, American Museum in Britain, Bath, England, 2008

  • Quilts of the Oregon Trail, (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Books, 2006)

  • "The Anti-polygamy Quilt by an Ogden Methodist Quilting Bee,"
    Uncoverings 2003, (Lincoln, NE: American Quilt Study Group, 2003)

  • “A Visual Record Study: Quilts in the Lives of Women Who Migrated to the Northwest, 1850-1990,” Women in Pacific Northwest History;" Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001. 

  • “Quilts and Women of the Mormon Migrations: Treasures of Transition,” Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 1996.

  • “Treasures in the Trunk: Quilts of the Oregon Trail,” Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 1993.

  • “Postcards from Treasures in the Trunk,” Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 1993.

  • The Quilt Revival,” Women's Journal, April, May, June 1994.

  • Common Threads,” Iowa Alumni Review, University of Iowa, Winter 1993.

  • Quilts of the Oregon Trail,” Oregon Humanities, Winter 1992.

  • Quilts of the 1929 Oregon Quilt Contest, Bits and Pieces, Lewisburg, PA: Oral Traditions Project, 1991. 

  • Women's Work: A Study of Quilts,” exhibition catalogue, Portland, OR: Columbia Willamette Quilt Study Group, 1985. 

  • The Quilts of Grant Wood's Family and Paintings, Uncoverings 1982, San Francisco, CA: American Quilt Study Group, 1982. 

Plus numerous articles in quilt and needlework publications:


  • “Quilts of Migration” and variations on that theme
  • “Quilts: Heirlooms from the Homefront”
  • “The Ties that Bind: Quilts made in Community”
  • “Grandmother’s Garden: Reflections on a 1930 Oregon Quilt Contest”
  • “Quilt Patterns Providers and Promoters of the Colonial Revival 1890-1930”
  • “Historic Quilts as Metaphors in Art and Literature”
  • “Woolen Quilts”
  • “Oregon Heritage Quilts”
  • “The Solar System Quilt”


  • “Treasures in Your Trunk: Discovering the Clues”
  • “Quilt for The Hired Man: A Personal Design Exploration”

Special Presentations

  • “Thimble Tea: A Quilt Sharing”

Curator Exhibitions

  • 2011 “Small Wonders: Quilts by Andrea Leong Balosky, Lopez Island WA Library
  • 2004 “Feast Your Eyes on Quilts: Vegetable Quilts,” Museum of the Oregon Territory, in conjunction with a Smithsonian traveling exhibition
  • 2002 “Quilts: Heirlooms from the Homefront,” Museum of the Oregon Territory, Oregon City
  • 2001 “Pieced and Quilted Gardens,” Museum of the Oregon Territory, Oregon City, OR, in conjunction with a Smithsonian traveling exhibition
  • 2000 "Quilts: Stitched Records of Human Experience," Washington State University Holland Library Archive, Pullman, WA

Artist Exhibitions and Sales

  • 2011 Lopez Island Library, Lopez Island, WA
  • 2010 Lopez Island Labor Day Weekend Studio Tour
  • 2010 Lopez Island Community Center, Lopez Island, WA
  • 2010 U.S. Bank, Stadium Bank, Portland, OR
  • 2009 Chimera Gallery Guest Artist, Lopez Island, WA
  • 2008-09 Craftsmen Among Us, Trinity Episcopal Church, Portland, OR
  • 2006 Albina Community Bank, Portland, OR
  • 2005 Local 14 Women’s Art Show and Sale, Portland, OR
  • 1988-05 Quilters' Market Semi-Annual Sales, Portland, OR 

Thank you very much, Mary, for sharing yourself with us today, and for the insights we have gained because of your efforts in this field. Continued success to you.


* Women (and Men) at Work

© 2002 - 2016 Kimberly Wulfert, PhD. Absolutely no copies, reprints, use of photos or text are permitted for commercial or online use. One personal copy for study purposes is permitted.

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