A Visit from the Little Quilters

from notes taken at the Dallas Quilt Guild meeting 2/6/97

Mary Ellen Von Holt and Sylvia Johnson visited with the Dallas Guild and shared the _Who, What and Where of Little Quilts_ with us in a slideshow presentation. Mary Ellen began the evening by reminding us that they are teachers and not lecturers, but I think they did a fine job as both.

Why is a little quilt special? Mary Ellen asked this question and went on to relate her own blooming interest in little quilts during the mid 70's when the interest in traditional American handicrafts began to revive. She found that little quilts were hard to find, and expensive when she could locate one. When she tried to make her own she felt that they looked too new, and lacked the charm and personality that the antiques added to a room. Her solution was to make small quilts in simple patterns and age them to give them a well used appearance. She began producing quilts that looked as if they could have been doll quilts from days gone by. With a stack of samples she talked her way into a craft show and began selling them.

The little quilts sold well, but Mary Ellen noticed a rising demand for patterns --particularly when people would come up and take tracings off her displays. She also felt, at this time, that the fabrics she wanted to work with were hard to find. Starting with a photocopier and hand-written packaging Mary Ellen went into business selling her patterns, and was able to move up to professional printing and color copying like the packaging she uses today. She claims she knew she was successful when she had her first book published in Japanese.

Little Quilts is located in Marietta, Georgia, a town north of Atlanta. The biggest landmark in Marietta is the KFC chicken building. Directions in town are given in relation to "the big chicken", and Little Quilts, we're told, is 8 miles east of the big chicken.

Mary Ellen reminded us that many people work in groups of three. There were the Supremes, the Three Musketeers, and the Three Stooges... The three members of Little Quilts are quilting friends who each has a talent and special skills that make the business work. Together with a few assistants and their friendly US Mail Carrier and UPS delivery agents, they manage to keep the organization running.

Mary Ellen, originally from Chicago, calls herself the "rotary cutting queen" and enjoys getting into the fabric with her cutter. She shares her sewing space with her husband's 50's band, and remarked that the rotary cutter was always on hand to keep them on their side of the basement. She likes to make new quilts out of old blocks, especially antique finds from shows, and she enjoys rug hooking in the primitive American style.

Sylvia Johnson used to teach kindergarten but now applies her talents to making quilts for special occasions and doing cross stitch. She collects antique quilts from the 30's and the late 1800's, and has an extensive collection of teddy bears -- many of which appear in her books. Alice Berg, the third member of the group, enjoys patchwork piecing, traditional patterns, and medallion quilts. She also does primitive rug hooking. In addition to the narration, we were shown many slides of the three quilters, their homes and families, cars and collections of sporting equipment.

What is a little quilt? Mary Ellen was careful to point out that a little quilt is small, but not a miniature. They are made just like a large quilt, but small enough to be easily manageable. She makes most of her blocks up to about 5 inches square. It's important that the fabric scale is appropriately sized, that the quilt has a scrappy look and is simply quilted. Then they are tea-dyed for a softer aged look and pressed flat.

Much of the inspiration for Little Quilt patterns comes from children's books. In particular, Mary Ellen likes _Crib Quilts and Other Small Wonders_ as well as antique sources. In collecting antique quilts she has learned that most doll quilts (what she strives to reproduce) were made quickly from scraps of larger quilts, and since they were heavily used and not valued, not many of them have survived. Their scarcity can cause them to cost as much as a full-sized quilt of the same era.

So, how do you make a little quilt? First, you must gather some fabric. Mary Ellen stresses that it's not important to keep it all neat and organized. That, she says, creates a "worship center" of a neatly folded fabric altar. She showed us slides of baskets and bins of jumbled scraps, sorted only by color.

Begin with your basic colors of red, blue and green, as well as a muslin background, and expand on that. Find small prints in shades lighter and darker than each of your colors, in different patterns and designs. Be sure to use deep, dark prints for that old-fashioned look. Replace the muslin with tone-on-tone background prints in a variety of shades. Don't match anything too well. Then add splashes of color, fabrics that area little bit brighter or lighter like yellow, pink, or purple. Add them more than once for the best effect. Mary Ellen said that having a print appear once makes it look like a mistake, twice like you were unsure of the decision, but put it in more than three times and everyone will be sure you meant it.

There are certain color choices you can make to give your new quilt an antique flavor. Little Quilts has put together fabric collections which feature these shades, and you can shop for them as well. Look for: black, brown, mustard yellow, pink, tan, and purple in calico, plaids, stripes, and tone-on-tone prints. Add a handful of pastels, Victorian reprints, and 30's novelty reprints. Remember that you are "trying to achieve a more interesting scrap quilt." In order to do that you need to "substitute different but similar" fabrics without overkill.

When planning your quilt be sure to select a good variety of prints. Pull out everything you might want to use and whack off a 10 or 12 inch piece. This prevents you from using too much of any single print, or getting too coordinated with your colors. Mary Ellen suggests cutting the remaining piece into strips and sorting them into baskets. "You don't have to do anything with it, it just looks good," she said.

As you assemble your little quilt, be sure to check the seam allowance on your machine. Mary Ellen feels that too many of us just use the presser foot width, and she said that is often too large. She also recommends the use of a design wall and a reducing glass in order to plan block layouts.

When you have finished your quilt, give it a soak in a tea-dye bath, rinse it out and iron it flat.

What do you do with a little quilt? Mary Ellen and Sylvia were full of ideas for decorating your home with these small treasures. They pointed out that many of the homes featured in their books are either their own or those of close friends (in case you wanted to know). Suggestions included: hanging on your front door for an afternoon, along with a porch display of antique toys or memorabilia; on the walls in your stairwell for a gallery effect, especially with other pieces of needlework or a vine wreath. You can display your quilts in the living room, on the wall, draped on the mantle or over the back of a chair, or in a basket with other toys. Use your small quilts to carry out a theme: combine antiques with the same motif -- such as stars-- and your quilt pattern.

Little quilts can be hung from pegs in a hallway, enabling you to hang them in a smaller space, or they can be draped over a table and arranged with baskets, teddy bears, or dolls. Mary Ellen and Sylvia suggested using your little quilts to decorate when you have special quilting friends over. For example, you might use them in the kitchen nook to add a little bit of fabric flair to the occasion. They showed us pictures of little quilts displayed on a table, and emphasized that they don't normally use them as placemats, just as decoration. Many of the Little Quilt patterns can be made into coordinating pillows with the addition a of a border, and very tiny pillows can be used as ornaments or party favors.

A new book from Little Quilts is due out in September. We were told it would contain about 45 pictures with decorating ideas, and have an Americana theme. Mary Ellen used the Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls in many of the photos, because of their red hair and blue clothing. She showed displays of several quilts in homes with whitewashed walls, wooden floors, and primitive American artwork. Another popular theme they will use is the story of Noah's Ark, with it's outdoor motifs of stars, log cabin, and flying geese blocks. The book will also include patterns for making doll bed sized linens to display along with your little quilt.

While showing the slides from the new book she said you can move the quilts around from time to time, redecorate with new accessories, and use them in different settings. Don't feel that a display has to be static. Displays can be seasonal, using your china and holiday decorations to coordinate either colors or themes, and they can include many different types of needlework such as braided and hooked rugs, cross stitch, or even framed prints of pictures of quilts.

During the presentation Mary Ellen and Sylvia called our attention to two small quilts that have gone missing from their collection. These were quilts that went to shows or workshops and never came home. One is a schoolhouse block done in 30's reproduction prints, with a bright pink border and blue sashing between the houses. The other is an Amish basket pattern also in 30's reproduction prints, with a sunbonnet Sue print border. Pictures of both of these quilts are in their books, and if you have information about them please contact The Little Quilts company.

The Little Quilters left us with this thought: "We like to think of little quilts as dessert for quilters -- you know that 'dessert' is 'stressed' spelled backwards."

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This page last updated on: Friday, February 14, 1997.