“Memphis Blues” by Mary Alma Parker
Even if you have a loyal cadre of readers, sometimes blogging feels like dropping pennies into a deep, dark well. “Hello?!” you call out. “Anybody there?!”
In the spring, as some of you know, after a quick trip to Charleston, South Carolina, I posted some images from the Textile Wing at the Charleston Museum, including the quilt by Mary Alma Parker pictured above. My sewing readers voiced their appreciation. Plop! The penny dropped down. And, that was that — or so I thought.
Turns out, that was not it. Last month Mary Alma Parker’s daughter, Clare Butler, emailed me. Not only had she had found my post (really?! by what miracle?), but she had read it to her mother and my appreciative words ‘really made her mother’s day’! How cool is that?!
Ms. Butler and I exchanged a couple of emails, and she has given me permission to tell you more about her mother and her mother’s quilting.
First, find better pictures of “Memphis Blues” in the Charleston Museum’s flickr set.
sorry so blurry! a phone picture shot through glass
I was taken with the quilt’s exuberant use of prints, its lovely colors, and the playful departures from traditional patterning. Based on those three aesthetic traits, as well as the title, “Memphis Blues”, I speculated that the maker was African American. I could find nothing online to contradict that assumption. Well, I was wrong.
Mary Alma Parker was born and raised in Memphis and has lived in Charleston with her husband (a Charleston native) for the last 25 years. Her daughter told me that her mother was “very influenced by African-American design aesthetics and artistic composition from her early years and throughout her life”. Mrs. Parker took my incorrect assumption about her origins “as a compliment”.
Her daughter also wrote this: “She chose to use the paper template hexagons as her motif on Memphis Blues because many quilters viewed them as crafty and trite”. She wanted a familiar visual motif so that the “focus could be on the randomness of her composition, color, and pattern choices”. That certainly worked!
I also learned that Mrs. Parker never used a machine for anything and that she belonged to a quilting group in Charleston where they “focused on learning a variety of techniques”. It was in that group where she discovered a love of the applique method. Mrs. Parker went on to make a completely original Baltimore album quilt, as well as a one featuring collard greens, called “State Vegetable”.
Like many quilters, Mrs. Parker was a recycler before recycling was a thing. Her daughter wrote: “I now recognize her as one of the thriftiest recyclers of just about everything — way before it was popular as it is today. You’ll notice the circles used as the quilting pattern on Memphis Blues in the borders — those are tracing of cans of food from her pantry. She always used cans as pattern weights when she sewed all of our clothes when my sister and I were growing up, so it is logical that she would use them as patterns for her quilting stitch designs too”.
Clare has promised me pictures of the Baltimore album quilt, and if she finds them, I shall be sure to post them.
P.S. Mary Alma Parker was also a collector of unusual vintage quilts and many of those in the permanent collection in the Charleston Museum were her finds. Here are two links and some text her daughter emailed me:
One in particular that you may recall seeing in the museum is the cigarette silks quilt. A partial picture and description can be seen on this page: http://www.charlestonmuseum.org/early-20th-century-quilts. Cigarette silks were one of the first premiums marketed to influence sales of a product in the US and targeted the growing leisure class of women interested in crafting. Here is a brief explanation of the trend: http://www.geocities.ws/nimue_139/history.html