Meet Merry May
Hometown: Tuckahoe, NJ
Education: Associate's Degree
School: Southwestern College, San Diego, CA
Occupation: Professional Quilter; Instructor, Designer, Appraiser, Historian, Guest Curator, Commission Work, Consultant
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Quilting is in My Blood
LoMy grandmother taught me how to use a sewing machine and make clothing when I was about 8 years old. I followed up by doing stamped cross stitch (one of my grandmother's passions), needlepoint (I even designed a few myself), and counted cross stitch. All of these went by the wayside when I discovered quilting in the early 1970s.
I remember being on a bus trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art while attending the University of Delaware. I had, maybe 15 or 20 squares of fabric (some were cotton, others were poly/cotton blends), and was attempting to hand piece them to make a quilt. I had no idea what I was doing (I was piecing the squares in "sections" rather than rows, setting in the seams as I went), and soon set this aside when other things came along.
Several years later, I was married and had two small children under foot, when I volunteered to make a quilt top for my church to raffle. This time I began piecing with a sewing machine, and I shudder to think what the quilt top really looked like by the time I was finished piecing it. I'm not even sure that I knew that quilts are supposed to have 1/4" seams. I'll leave the rest to your imagination.
Next, I decided to make pillow covers for friends and family for gifts, being young and broke. So I made at least a dozen or so LeMoyne Star pillow covers (LeMoyne Stars have set-in or "Y" seams which are not easy, even for accomplished quilters). Did I mention that I pieced them all by machine? I didn't know it was hard! But after giving away all of those pillows, I decided that if I had put them all together instead of making them into pillows, I could have had a quilt!
Fast forward to the early 1980s. I was divorced from husband #1 and engaged to husband #2, when I decided to make a bed sized quilt for my husband-to-be. By this time there were a few books available, so I borrowed a booklet from my mother that had a number of sampler block patterns, and basic instructions on how to machine piece. I thought I was pretty smart by deciding to only use two alternating blocks, rather than a dozen or so different ones. And of course I liked star blocks, wanted "fluffy" batting, and knew I had to hand quilt it. The star blocks I chose both had set-in seams. One was a Rolling Star (a LeMoyne Star with diamonds surrounding the central star); I'm not sure what the name of the second block was, but it also had set-in seams. Again, I didn't know it was hard, so I just did it!
I used wash-away marker to mark the quilting designs on the quilt top, basted it using extra-loft polyester batting, and put it in a floor frame. It took at least a year for me to hand quilt it using the "poke and stab" method (one stitch at a time) and was actually pretty good at it.
One hot, humid summer day I sat at the frame to do some stitching and discovered to my horror that the wash-out markings had all disappeared. Did I mention that it was humid? After that, I re-marked the quilting designs a little at a time.
Shortly after our wedding, my sister in law decided that "we" should take an Intermediate Quilting class through the local adult education program. Even though I was quilting my first quilt, I knew there were a lot of things to be learned, so I agreed. She got special permission from the instructor to allow us into the class, convincing her that we had both already made quilts.
The class was geared around a book with printed templates to make a 12-block double bed size sampler quilt. Being a pragmatist at the time (or so I thought), I decided to make two twin-size quilts, one for each of my children. This meant that I needed to make sixteen blocks, rather than the 12 that everyone else was making. I learned a lot, including how to do hand appliqué, and eventually did complete the two twin quilts. They were also hand quilted on the floor frame and had fluffy batting.
I continued to make smaller quilted items for awhile, and in the meantime the adult education quilting teacher started a local quilt guild, which of course I joined. Then in 1988 she called me one evening and said that she was going to stop teaching the quilting classes at the school, and asked if I would like to take over. ME??? But I'm still a beginner myself! What if I tell them something wrong?? Her reply: "They're beginners; they won't know if it's wrong!"
And so my professional quiltmaking journey began. I muddled my way through it for the first several years, then joined the Tri-State Quiltmaking Teachers group (now known as the Quilt Professionals' Network). Their members were generous and sharing as they helped guide me onto the path of success as a teacher. I owe a lot to them.
After I had made my first bed sized quilt, my new hubby and I started attending some local auctions. There I discovered that a nice, usable antique quilt could be purchased for $25. Why was I spending all of that time and money to make my own quilts, when good antique ones could be had for a song? So I started collecting antique quilts, with a theme of covering different styles of quilts throughout American history; the "one of each" approach. After a couple of years of hoarding quilts, though, the other bidders started ganging up on me and running the prices up. So we stopped going to the auctions, deciding that I had enough antique quilts for awhile. As we collected, though, I started investigating more about how old the quilts were, how they were made, and studying the fabrics in them. In 1990 Barbara Brackman published a landmark book called "Clues in the Calico," which answered all of my questions as well as my prayers. Shortly after this, I started doing lectures on American Quilt History using my collection as examples.
By the time I had been teaching quiltmaking for about ten years, I began to wonder if there were any other quilters in my family. Neither of my grandmothers made quilts, although they both enjoyed sewing. I was beginning to think it was all some kind of a fluke. Then one day my mother showed me a quilt that had been passed down through my father's side of the family that had been made for his "Uncle Jim." It was a baby quilt, very scrappy, and in pretty good shape for its age. Later I found that this quilt was made in 1894 for Uncle Jim's birth by his Great Grandmother, Altha Bollinger.
A few years later I contacted one of my great aunts to ask about the family Bible so I could do some research on Altha Bollinger. Lo and behold, not only did she share the family Bible so I could copy information from it, but she also mentioned that she had a couple of family quilts up in her attic. Two were quilt tops made by her mother, and another finished quilt was made by her grandmother (Altha's daughter). When she asked if I would like to see them, I almost jumped out of my skin! The next time I visited her, she had the quilts and tops, and then asked if I would like to have them. (Now, what do you think the answer to that question was??) She also gave me the family's quilting rails, including hand made wrought iron clamps that were made by her father), and a folk art painting of her sister in law and brother in law who were siblings from England, and had married two of her siblings.
Practically walking on air, I had finally discovered that I didn't get the quilting "bug" from the milkman! It was in my blood.
As you can imagine, one thing led to another, and here I am with an abundance of professional labels: Quilt Maker, Professional Quilter, Instructor, Designer, Appraiser, Historian, Guest Curator, Commission Artist, Longarm Machine Operator, and Consultant.
It sure isn't how I planned to spend my life, but the good Lord brought me to where I am today.
I wouldn't have it any other way.