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Mary Schafer: A Legacy of Quilt History

Mary Worrall. August 15, 2013
All rights reserved, Michigan State University Museum
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.
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Mary Schafer

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Poppy Wreath
Mary Schafer
c1954
Flushing, Genesee County, Michigan
Collection of Michigan State University Museum acc.#1998:53.77

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Linden Mill
Maker unknown
Provenance unknown
c1900
Collection of Michigan State University Museum acc.#1998.53.52

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Linden Mill
Mary Schafer
Flushing, Genesee County, MI
1956
Collection of Michigan State University Museum acc.#1998.53.51

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Round Robins

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Quilt blocks

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Eisenhower
Mary Schafer, piecer
Flushing, Genesee County, Michigan
1967-1968
Collection of Michigan State University Museum acc.#1998:53.32

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Burgoyne Surrounded
Mary Schafer, piecer
Flushing, Genesee County, Michigan
1974
Collection of Michigan State University Museum acc.#1998:53.10

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Lafayette Orange Peel
Mary Schafer, piecer
Flushing, Genesee County, Michigan
1974
Collection of Michigan State University Museum acc.#1998:53.48

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Spirit of '76
Mary Schafer, piecer Ida Pullum, quilter
Flushing, Genesee County, Michigan
c1974
Collection of Michigan State University Museum acc.#1998:53.93

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Molly Pitcher Quilt
Mary Schafer, piecer; Ida Pullum, quilter
Flushing, Genesee County, Michigan
1975
Collection of Michigan State University Museum acc.#1998:53.60

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Clamshell
Mary Schafer
c1966
Flushing, Genesee County, Michigan
c1966
Collection of Michigan State University Museum acc.#1998:53.13

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Lobster
Mary Schafer
Flushing, Genesee County, Michigan
1969
Collection of Michigan State University Museum acc.#1998:53.53

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Grapes and Vines
Mary Schafer
c1972
Flushing, Genesee County, Michigan
Collection of Michigan State University Museum acc.#1998:53.43

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Q is for Quilt
Mary Schafer, Gwen Marston, Joe Cunningham
Gwen Marston and Joe Cunningham, quilters
Flushing, Genesee County and Beaver Island, Michigan
1987
Collection of Michigan State University Museum acc.#6714.1

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Dutchman’s Puzzle
Mary Schafer, piecer
c1976
Flushing, Genesee County, Michigan
Collection of Michigan State University Museum acc.#1998:53.30

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Album
Maker unknown
Collected in Bird-in Hand, Pennsylvania
1856
Collection of Michigan State University Museum acc.#1998:53.1

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Whig Rose
Maker unknown
probably West Chester, Pennsylvania
c1850-70
Collection of Michigan State University Museum acc.#1998:53.115

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Whole Cloth Quilt
Theresa Hamilton
Harpersfield [state unidentified]
1837
Collection of Michigan State University Museum acc.#1998:53.116

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Amish Bars
Mary Schafer
Flushing, Genesee County, Michigan
1976
Collection of Michigan State University Museum acc.#1998:53.5


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.

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.








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.

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.

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.




Mary Schafer’s Bicentennial Quilts
The celebration of the Bicentennial of the United States helped foster a renewed interest in quilting in America.  Across the country, individuals and groups made quilts that paid tribute to important events and individuals in the nation’s history.  Mary’s series of quilts made during the 1970s included ones that incorporated images of or references to Washington, Lafayette, General Burgoyne, Molly Pitcher, and the American Flag.

During this period quilting publications became more widely available and interest in the public display of quilts was heightened.  Mary participated in as many as quilt shows as possible.





















































Mary Schafer’s “Challenge Period”
During what she termed her “challenge period,” Mary not only increased her commitment to the study and making of quilts, but also became determined “to raise in popular esteem” the appreciation of quilts by educating the public about quilts and their history.  Mary received her first invitation to conduct a workshop in April of 1971 at the Flint (Michigan) YWCA and subsequently spoke to many groups, particularly in the Great Lakes region, on both historical and technical aspects of quilting.

During this period Mary made quilts in patterns and styles she felt were important in quilt history.  The collection of her quilts thus became instructional tools by which she could teach others about aspects of quilting history.





































Public Acclaim for Mary Schafer and Her Quilts
By the time of the quilting revival of the 1970s, Mary Schafer had become a well-known figure in the quilting world.  Mary collaborated with Gwen Marston and Joe Cunningham on exhibits and public programming.  Their efforts cumulated in the book, Mary Schafer and Her Quilts (MSU Press, 1990).  In addition to giving talks on quilting, Mary received awards for the quilts she had in numerous quilt contests and shows and her collection was shown in many exhibitions.  In 1986, Mary was honored with Michigan Senate Resolution No. 605, honoring her for “many contributions to the art of quiltmaking.”





















The Mary Schafer Quilt and Ephemera Collection
In the mid-1990s, the MSU Museum began to work with Mary in order to keep her wonderful collection of quilts and ephemera- books, study fabric, patterns, correspondence, and other materials together for use by researchers and educators.  With the generous support of the Ruth Mott Fund, Kitty Clark Cole and Jeffrey Cole, and numerous individuals and quilt groups, the core of Mary Schafer’s collection was purchased for the MSU Museum.











Credits
Curator/Primary Researcher: Mary Worrall
Curatorial consultant and editorial assistance: Marsha MacDowell
Additional research, assistance, and virtual exhibit development: Beth Donaldson
Curatorial Assistance: Lynne Swanson
Exhibit Fabrication: Phil Lienhart
Exhibit Design: Melinda Hamilton and Mary Worrall
Graphic Design: Melinda Hamilton
Object photography: Pearl Yee Wong, KEVA, Mary Whalen
Additional assistance provided by: Michele Beltran, Latricia Horstman, Dustin O'Connor, Katy Donaldson, and Laura Porteous
Funding for this exhibit was provided by the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, Country Stitches, Kitty Clark Cole, and MSU Offices of the Provost and Vice-President for Research and Graduate Studies.

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