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

Quilt Historian Interview with:

 Mary Elizabeth Johnson
Author, Editor, and Researcher
in the Home Sewing and Quilt Fields

Contact Information



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'm a writer and editor who started my career in the field of home sewing, working with such companies as Simplicity, Coats & Clark, and Singer in New York City. My primary interest is publishing, but as my knowledge of antique quilts has deepened, I have been hired to appraise quilts and quilt collections, to do some quilt restoration, and I've curated a few quilt exhibitions."

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

"In 1975, when I was living and working in New York City, a friend named Mary Roby (who became the managing editor of Country Living magazine) and I made a quilt that was featured in Family Circle magazine. I had grown up watching my mother piece quilts, and I guess, at that time in my quilt awareness, I thought quilting was something that everybody did. When I moved back to Alabama (to Birmingham) in 1975 to kick off a crafts book program for Oxmoor House, the first book I wrote was called "Prize Country Quilts." It featured the winners of a quilt contest sponsored by Progressive Farmer magazine; the fact that there had been more than a thousand entries in the contest only reinforced my notion that everybody quilted. It wasn't until the late 1970s or early 1980s that I really woke up to the fascinating story that antique quilts have to tell."

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

One was Joyce Gross, because she invited me, as the author of "Prize Country Quilts," to go out to San Francisco and be a part of a quilt festival/seminar she was organizing sometime around 1977. It was when I went to her house, and she began bringing out fabulous antique quilts and introducing them to me like treasured old friends, that I finally "got" it! I realized that we, our own personal selves, could have relationships with antique quilts-there were plenty yet to be discovered-they weren't all squirreled away in museum collections. It was entirely possible that one could encounter a significant quilt almost anywhere, if one just knew how to recognize it.

"About the same time, I met Hazel Carter, who was organizing the Continental Quilting Congress, and I was amazed at her energy and her dedication to antique quilts. I also got to know Jeanne Ray Laury, and her artistry and commitment to the different styles of quiltmaking was fascinating to me."

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

"There were two people. One was precious Mary Grunbaum, who had a quilt shop named the Great American Cover-up in Dallas. She and her husband, Rick, were early, early collectors, and she was very active in the quilt world in the late 70's and early 80's. She was generous with her collection and her knowledge, and steered me to some really outstanding quilts that made their way on to the pages of my books.

"The other quilt mentor was Charlotte Hagood, a remarkably talented and thoughtful woman whom I persuaded to come work with me when I became editor of Decorating & Craft Ideas magazine in 1979-80. Charlotte is a wonderful artist, and she has always had the ability to recognize superior workmanship and creativity in the artistic endeavors of other people. She taught me how to really look at quilts, and she also introduced me to the study of Alabama's own historic quilts."

5a) What aspect of study were you most passionate about at first?

"In the beginning, my estimate of the value of a antique quilt was based on whether or not I could publish in some way, in one of my books or in the magazine, so I was passionate, first, about the way the quilt looked, and second, about its provenance, and third, about whether or not I could write instructions for how to make it. After all, it was the company for which I worked that footed the bill for my being able to travel and see all the great quilts I was seeing. I was obligated to turn that experience into something finite for the company."

5b) How has this changed over time and why? 

"Now that I don't have the pressure to produce books and magazines for a corporation, I can study quilts for my own personal pleasure. I used to feel apologetic about my commercial objectives when I was in the presence of those whom I considered to be truly "pure" quilt scholars, those who were untainted by the need to produce a product and who could afford to devote their hours to research, whether they earned any money from it or not. Now I'm over that guilt, and I'm just grateful that I've had the opportunity to see so very, very many antique quilts, because, after all, it's the actual study of the object that makes us "quilt experts!"

6) What is your current "pet project"? 

The Alabama Quilt Book Project continues to be my main interest. We held seventeen quilt-sharing days after we began field research in 2003 and documented and photographed at least 1353 quilts. We had defined the span of time that we could accommodate as 1750 to 1950, but we decided to relax our rule a bit when we discovered a beautifully-documented piece from 1682! Of course, it was not made in Alabama, but came here with its people more than two centuries ago.

“I have one full-time partner, Carole King, who is curator of Old Alabama Town in Montgomery. In addition to the quilts brought into the seventeen quilt-sharing days, we have documented another 1050 quilts in private and public collections. That makes a total of 2403 quilts that Carole and I have seen in Alabama over the past ten years. We have completed our documentation days, although people still bring quilts to show us, and we are working on putting the book together now. We hope to see it published in 2011 or 2012.”

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

"It's hard to say--I'm very proud of having started the crafts book program at Oxmoor House, because it was, for a time, the standard against which other quilt book publishers measured themselves. (I hasten to add that I worked with mail-order marketing geniuses, and there was one of the greatest trade book salesmen ever at Oxmoor House at that time. They were responsible for getting the books out to the public.)"

"I'm proud that my books were resources for Barbara Brackman's, Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns and Encyclopedia of Appliqué."

"However, I'm also very proud of the work I did on The American Quilt, with Rod Kiracofe, and of Mississippi Quilts."

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

"Of course, the answer is ‘Alabama Quilts,’ which is now underway.”

9) Any further comments are invited. 

"I feel like one of the "old women" of the quilt world. I was lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time (in the mid-1970s) when the "current quilt revival" (as it is so frequently called) came along. I was able to turn my education and experience in textiles to the study of quilts, and I cannot imagine a more satisfying career."

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

Books I have written:

  • Martha Skelton: Master Quilter of Mississippi, published in 2008 by University Press of Mississippi; 192 pp; 4/c throughout

  • Just How I Picture it in My Mind: Contemporary African American Quilts from the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, published in 2006 by the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts and River City Publishing; 128 pp; 4/c throughout.
  • Threading the Generations: A Mississippi Family’s Quilt Legacy, published in October 2005 by University Press of Mississippi; 128 pp; 4/c throughout.
  • Journey to Jericho (2003), with Kaye England; Kaye England Publications;
  • Mississippi Quilts (2001); University Press of Mississippi;
    224 pp; 4/c throughout.
  • Quilt Inspirations from Africa (2000), with Kaye England; Contemporary Books, a division of McGraw Hill; 192 pp; 4/c throughout
  • The American Quilt (1993), with Roderick Kiracofe; Clarkson N. Potter, a division of Random House; 296 pp; 4/c throughout. French and German editions also published. Reviewed in the New York Times and named one of the paper's Notable Books in 1993.
  • Star Quilts (1992); Clarkson N. Potter/Random House; 176 pp; 4/c throughout; an edition for Great Britain also published. Re-issued by Contemporary Books in 1997 as softback; Last printing 2000
  • A Garden of Quilts (1984); Oxmoor House; 162 pp; 4/c & b/w; last printing 1994
  • NatureCrafts: Seasonal Projects from Natural Materials (1980); Oxmoor House; 160 pp; 32 pp 4/c; Last printing 1990
  • Rugs: Designs, Patterns, Projects (1979); Oxmoor House; 192 pp; 96 4/c, 96 b/w. Last printing l985
  • Pillows: Designs, Patterns, Projects (1978); Oxmoor House; 192 pp. Last printing 1985
  • Prize Country Quilts (1977); Oxmoor House; 240 pp; 32 4/c, 208 b/w; 6th printing (1982).
  • Country Quilt Patterns (c. 1978); Oxmoor House; 80 pp. 16 pp 4/c, 64 b/w
  • Needlecraft Designs from Our Best Quilts (1978); Oxmoor House; 80 pp; 16 pp 4/c, 64 b/w.

Books I have edited/produced:

Books to which I have contributed:

  • Reader's Digest Complete Guide to Sewing (1976); The Reader's Digest Association; 528 pp; 4/c & b/w.
  • Fabled Flowers, by Kumiko Sudo (1996); Quilt Digest Press; 140 pp; 4/c & b/w.
  • Dyeing to Quilt, by Joyce Mori and Cynthia Myerberg (1997); Quilt Digest Press; 120 pp., 4/c & b/w.
  • Shoreline Quilts, compiled by Cyndy Rymer (2003). C & T Publishing; 96 pp., 4/c throughout.

Thank you, Mary, for sharing your personal history and future aspirations with us today. You have contributed so much to quilt history research, including many facets of American quilts and patterns for reproducing them. It seems you were ahead of your time and WE are the ones who are lucky you were in the right place at the right time. Good luck with the Alabama Project. Here's one for the project's suggestion box; please include some interior shots of the gorgeous stately homes found there. We look forward to the findings.


* Women (and Men) at Work

© 2003 - 2015 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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