An evening with Mimi Dietrich

from notes taken at the Dallas Quilt Guild meeting 5/2/97

Mimi visited the Dallas guild and shared her experience of working with the Smithsonian Institution on her two latest books. She also brought along several of the quilts which are described in her books, and told stories about the research and work that went in to creating them.

Mimi Dietrich lives near Baltimore, Maryland, an area known to the quilting world for the beautiful album style applique quilts that were made there about 150 years ago. Teaching at a shop she says is about 1 mile from her house, she offers one class in the album style, and adds that it runs for twelve months.

Of the Smithsonian, she reminded us of the controversy surrounding their decision to license the overseas production of quilts from their textile collection. The quilting community was so offended it launched a successful campaign of letter writing to stop the 'selling of american history'. A few companies decided to do something positive, and Mimi became involved with two of them. RJR Fabrics produced four lines of fabric based on those in the quilts, and That Patchwork Place approached her to write a book. Mimi said she considered the offer and almost didn't accept it, then realized that if she didn't do it, somebody else would. She changed her mind and has since found the experience to be both fun and challenging.

The two books that have resulted from this project are Quilts from the Smithsonian and Quilts: An American Legacy. Mimi said the object of the books was threefold: to show pictures of the quilts in the Smithsonian collection, to use them as inspiration for new quilts, and to provide today's quilters with patterns for those old quilts and allow them to be a part of the history of the Smithsonian.

Mimi described her first few days working with the museum. She says she was invited to meet with a group that called itself Product Development and Licensing. Her publisher told her to "wear a power suit" to the meeting, and Mimi says she felt a little hesitant at this point. How many quilters have "power suits?" But the meeting was a good one, and the next day she was invited to the textile library. At the library she was given a notebook containing photos of the quilts. To her surprise, all the images were in black and white. She didn't want to complain, after all, it wasn't so bad. She was there to look at designs and patterns, and it didn't really matter too much what the color was in the originals. She made up copies of about 40 of the pictures and began to select from those designs.

When she went back again it was to look at slides of the quilts. This time she was given a little box of slides and a light box. Think about it. (It's nearly the equivalent of holding the slide in front of a light bulb) At this point she made some more decisions and narrowed her choices to 12 quilts for each book. She picked the ones that made her think "I have to make that quilt".

The quilts illustrating the book are all new quilts, and at first she tried to make them identical to the old ones. Part way through the work on the first quilt she was asked by the museum "You aren't going to make these quilts exactly like the old quilts, are you?" Mimi says she felt a sudden panic and promised that, no, she wouldn't be making them exactly like the old ones.

While making these quilts, especially while working on the first one, Mimi said she learned a few things. First, she feels it's important for quilters to leave some kind of label on their quilts so they can be identified and researched in the future. Many of the quilts in the collection have no history because there is no way to tell who made them, where they lived, or even when the quilt was made. Many of the quilts are dated only to the "second half of the 19th century" or "first third of the 19th century".

Mimi also learned quite a bit about trying to match fabrics from our past. She wanted to make the quilts exactly like the originals, and though she was able to study close-up photos taken for her, she found she wasn't able to match the old prints in the quilts. The fabrics from RJR were not out yet. Instead, Mimi realized that we need to make our own quilts. It's all right to see these old patterns and be inspired, but she feels we should use the fabrics that are in our stash right now and make quilts for today.

The first pattern she attempted to reproduce is a 9-patch variation alternating with plain squares and set on point. It is striking and modern-looking because of the use of bright red and blue fabrics. This quilt, we were told, was made by a friend of hers who was working on a degree in textiles. The student became an "intern" and researched and constructed the quilt. Mimi calls her pattern Plaid Patch, but added that it should be called the "Three credit quilt".

Nine Patch

Another pattern that Mimi chose to reproduce is the Carpenter's Wheel. The original quilt had 30 blocks made in red and blue on a white background, and a chintz tan floral border. The colors were carefully matched by the maker. When making her quilt, doing the patchwork by hand, Mimi knew she couldn't do 30 blocks the same size as the original, and so she chose to make a smaller quilt.

Working on this project, Mimi got to think about color theory quite a bit. She says that if you listen to somebody teaching you about color theory, you learn that there are contrasting colors and coordinating colors, that you can use colors opposite each other on the color wheel, colors next to each other on the wheel, either primary shades or pastel ones. When you are done you realize you can use anything you want. Since she used a Hoffman print for the border of her Carpenter's Wheel, Mimi was able to take the color dots on the selvedge and use them to match the other fabrics she would use. She finds this a handy way to match fabric for her projects.

For her Sunflower quilt, Mimi based her pattern on one created by Mary Copp in the middle of the 19th century. Mimi said she had been to Kansas and seen the sunflowers there and had purchased quite a bit of sunflower fabric. The original quilt consisted of sunflower blocks in a border around a center of Shoo-fly blocks. Again, after piecing one sunflower, she realized she was not going to make her deadline. So, using the one block and placing it off-center, she filled in with quickly pieced shoo-fly blocks. Then she showed it to the folks at the Smithsonian.

At this point Mimi paused to fill us in on the way the Smithsonian does business. Every single thing she did in relation to the quilt project had to be approved. When she showed them the sunflower quilt they responded with. "Oh. But, it doesn't maintain the integrity of the original quilt." Mimi was crushed. The quilt, meanwhile, had already been sent off to be quilted, and there was no turning back. As it turned out, when they saw the top after it had been quilted, they were fine with it.

Shoo-fly block

Mimi's sunflower quilt is made in green and gold and a sunflower print fabric. It wasn't until after she had completed it that she saw a color picture of the original. The maker had made her quilt in navy blue, dark brown, and bubblegum pink.

Still, Mimi likes to think that the original quilter must have been a gardener who made her quilt after working in the garden shooing flies off her sunflowers. She feels that quilters are romantic people who like to make up stories about their quilts. The Smithsonian, however, is interested in history and facts and scratched that line from her book.

Of her version of the Chips and Whetstones pattern Mimi said that it was made from a difficult pattern and a simple pattern: the compass-style star and the applique hearts in each corner. For this quilt she used fabrics from the Rising Sun collection by RJR, and chose to complete four blocks instead of 20. The title of the blocks made her think of pioneers traveling westward, or staking out a claim in the woods of the northwest. The settlers would have used a whetstone to sharpen their axes, and had chips of chopped wood laying around afterward. "Don't you think", she said "That this quilt was made by this woodsman's one true love?" (That didn't make the book either.)

Mimi's Scrap Baskets quilt was inspired by a basket quilt that has "the story" behind it. One of the few well-documented quilts in the collection, the original was made in Iowa or Kansas by Kaziah Bathurst around 1885. Kaziah became stepmother to three children and was able to use their mother's old dresses to make them each a quilt. Most of the original fabrics are dark brown or burgundy with darker overprinting. This leads Mimi to wonder what kind of life these women had, that they had to wear such dark and drab clothing.

For her second book Mimi made a Tumbling Blocks baby quilt from a variety of fabrics from RJR's Little Sister's collection. She made it the same size as the original, 41x47 inches, and noted that it is one of the few children's quilts in the museum collection. Mimi was amazed at this, since she feels like she spends a lot of her time making children's quilts, wall quilts, and other small quilts, and everything in the collection is sized much larger. The trapezoids were paper pieced in the English style, and Mimi worked on the quilt as she travelled, mentioning that it was a great project.

Mimi quilts with a group of people on Monday nights. They call themselves Monday Night Madness, having chosen the letters MNM because of all the chocolate candies they like to eat during the meetings. "Can you tell what I do with my life?" Mimi asked us. When it came time to make another quilt for her book, she chose an album patch block that her group had recently exchanged. This time she thought she had it made, after all, the blocks were already done. However, of the 18 blocks she had, only 6 were signed since each person had traded three blocks. How was she going to get the rest of the blocks signed? She finally decided that they would all have to sign names on the blocks, but not use their real ones. The group made up names they wished they had, drawing from the pool of friends, family, movies and old boyfriends. Mimi says she thinks "it's going to be fun in a hundred years for people to try to find these names."

Album Block

The original autograph quilt has 56 blocks, including one curious pair of mittens embroidered next to a male name. Mimi was told the reference might have been to a fellow who was "given the mitten" -- a term used to indicate a relationship that had ended.

The title of the Amish Victorian quilt was chosen, Mimi says, because those two things don't go together. The woolen fabrics are all solids in subdued colors, pieced into a crazy-patch center. Each block used for the center is the same paper-foundation pattern, but because of the variation is color placement, you have to look hard to see it. The wool was so heavy she chose to not use it for the backing or the binding, and to leave out a batting. Instead the top is embroidered in the victorian style.

Mimi also chose a number of appliqued quilts to reproduce in her books. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Groom's Quilt. She says "When I first saw the quilt it was just breathtaking." Since RJR had based a fabric collection on it, Mimi felt she had to do something herself. The old quilt was associated with a "groom" and Mimi wanted to keep that theme, but not make a "bride's" quilt. Instead she chose the title "Wedding Quilt" and pulled 9 blocks from the original 81 different patterns in the older quilt. Taking the comb of flowers motif, Mimi used it in the border of her smaller quilt, along with the words "love", "honor", and "cherish" taken from the wedding ceremony. You'll notice she left out "obey"... The original quilt has the groom's name on the border, the blocks are all different, and many of them are signed by women. For so many blocks to have been made for one person, Mimi feels, "he must have really been a hunk." Yet, in the time since the book was written the Smithsonian has continued research into the names and background of the quilt and now believes it was not a wedding quilt, but a presentation quilt given for some other special occasion. Accordingly they have renamed it "The Pierce Album Quilt."

After her lecture, Mimi answered questions from the audience. When asked about batting, she said she used Warm and Natural in the Plaid Patch quilt because she had planned to send it off to college with her son. However, it was heavy and very warm, and she wasn't sure what might happen to it, and so it stayed home. The other quilts have either Thermore or Mountain Mist Light because they help recreate the feel of the old quilts and most of them are very light.

When asked why she did not recreate the Rising Sun quilt (a large Lone Star with appliqued corner panels) from the Smithsonian collection, Mimi said she felt that particular quilt was so unique and well done that she didn't want to copy it out of reverence for the original work.

All of the quilts shown were made for the books, to show how an older quilt can inspire a new one. The royalties off the books are split between herself and the Smithsonian. The money the museum gets is specifically earmarked for the quilt collection. Mimi shares ownership of the quilts with the Smithsonian for five years, then they belong to her alone but she cannot sell them.

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This page last updated on: May 02, 1997