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the mary schafer collection: a legacy of quilt history


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Mary Schafer of Flushing, Michigan has long been recognized as one of the forerunners of quilt studies as well as the developer of one of the most important quilt history collections in the United States. Over a period of over 40 years she developed a collection of over 200 quilts plus quilt tops, fabrics, and quilt blocks which are representative of most quilt styles and periods in American history. With the assistance of hundreds of individuals across the country, Michigan State University Museum was able to acquire the core Mary Schafer Quilt and Ephemera Collection.

This exhibition provides information about Mary Schafer and showcases items from the collection.

Photo of Mary Schafer  

Mary Schafer

Mary was born on April 27, 1910 in Austria-Hungary.  In 1911, her father, Josef Vida, immigrated to Brazil and then the United States where he settled in Kansas City, Kansas.  In 1915 he brought his family to join him but within a year, his wife, Mary’s mother, became ill and passed away.  Searching for a better life, Josef moved his family to Flint, Michigan during the early 1920s.  There, Mary’s interest in needlework was first nurtured when women in her neighborhood taught her sewing, tatting, and other needlework forms.


Mary Schafer’s First Kit Quilts

As a young woman, Mary’s interest in needlework was first nurtured when women in her Flint, Michigan neighborhood taught her sewing, tatting, and other needlework forms. In 1949, Mary purchased a kit to make a quilt but, after reading the instructions, the project seemed overwhelming and she returned the kit to the store.  In 1952, Mary decided to try again.  She purchased the “Rhododendron” kit quilt produced by Progress Company and, despite her earlier frustration, finished the quilt in six months.  After immediately buying and completing a second appliquéd kit quilt, she was hooked on quilting.

Photo of Poppy Wreath quilt  

Poppy Wreath
Mary Schafer
c. 1954
Flushing, Genesee County, Michigan
78” x 93”
MSUM# 1998:53.77

This appliquéd piece was Mary’s second quilt.  It was made from a kit produced by the Progress Company.  The design of a central medallion with a floral motif is very typical of a mid-century kit quilt.  Typically, kit quilts such as this would have included numbered and pre-cut appliqué pieces, and the quilting lines would have been pre-marked with dots on the background fabric.  Mary continued to use the method of using dots to mark quilting lines throughout her career.


Mary Schafer’s First Pieced Quilt

Inspiration appears in many forms; in 1956 Mary Schafer found hers while cleaning out the trunk of her car.  Her son had recently returned from military service, and the homecoming was celebrated with a beach party.  Picking up after the event, Mary discovered a wet and dirty unclaimed quilt that had been used as a beach blanket.  Wanting to honor the quiltmaker, Mary washed and repaired the quilt in attempt to restore the piece to its glory days.  She then created a classic red and white reproduction featuring an original border and quilting designs—elements that became Mary’s trademarks.  This was Mary’s first pieced quilt. 

As Mary researched to find the name of the pattern, she became a subscriber to Aunt Kate’s Quilting Bee and began to amass every reference to quilting she could find.  Unable to find the pattern’s name and because the design reminded her of a mill wheel, Mary named it “Linden Mill” after the only nationally registered historical site in her home of Genesee County at the time.

Photo of Linden Mill quilt that Mary found  

Linden Mill
Maker Unknown
c. 1900
68” x 76”
MSUM# 1998.53.52

The original quilt which inspired Mary Schafer’s lifetime quilting passion.  Saddened that this quiltmaker’s work had fallen into such a poor condition, Mary did everything she could to restore the quilt.

Photo of Linden Mill that Mary made  

Linden Mill
Mary Schafer
Flushing, Genesee County, Michigan
80” x 94”
MSUM# 1998.53.51

After rescuing the original Linden Mill quilt, Mary took on the challenge of creating this reproduction.  When Mary finished her copy of the Linden Mill quilt, she had enough quilts to cover all of the beds in her household and temporarily turned back to other forms of sewing for a short time.  Mary eventually made two more quilts in the Linden Mill design.


Round Robins

Through quilting magazines, Mary discovered “Round Robins,” the practice of swapping patterns through the mail.  Subsequently, Mary participated in numerous Round Robins, often becoming involved in as many as five at one time.  Through these exchanges of letters, patterns, and blocks, important friendships were formed and Mary became a part of an active network of quilters.  Among Mary’s correspondents were Joy Craddock of Denison, Texas, publisher of the 4 J’s; Glenna Boyd, publisher of Aunt Kate’s Quilting Bee; Delores Hinson, one of the founders of the National Quilt Association; and National Quilter’s Hall of Fame Inductee Cuesta Benberry.

Photo of quilt blocks   These quilt blocks are of patterns typically exchanged through Round Robins.  Round Robins often had a theme, for instance, participants only exchanged Kansas City Star blocks.  Women quite often belonged to several circles simultaneously.
Photo of round robin letters   Letters and patterns such as these circulated among round robin members.  The letters served as vehicles for quilters to share information not only about quilts but about many aspects of their daily lives.
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