Woman makes quilts old-fashioned way…by hand

By Regina Villiers. Originally published October 18, 1995 in The Suburban Life, added October 15, 2020.

Mary Roflow shows the double wedding ring quilt she made from fabric swatches from wall paper sample books from the decorating store she and her husband once owned in Madeira.

     Now and then something happens to give me that primeval urge of American women since Colonial days, the urge to make a patchwork quilt.

     The urge may even be in my genes, for it goes back to early childhood when I would watch my grandmother and two aunts stitch together bits of cloth into what looked like pictures to me.  But their pictures were prettier than my crayoned ones, and they kept you warm, in more ways than one.

     I never grew up and went into patchwork quilts.  Life dealt me activities far afield, but the urge still returns.

     Recently, the quilting bug struck again when I spent an afternoon with Mrs. Mary Roflow, who lived in a thimble’ throw of my house.

     Mrs. Roflow estimates that she has made about 30 quilts since she retired in 1970.  She has passed many of them on to her family, but she has several of them left.  And she’s still quilting.

     Mary is a wonder, for she doesn’t just make quilts.  She works magic by blending scrapes of cloth, like an artist blends oils.

     And she does everything by hand, with what she has around her.  Not expensive cutting boards and not rotary cutters.  Not state-of-art plastic templates.  

     She cuts her quilt pieces by hand, using scissors.  And her patterns are made from paper or cardboard.

     Her patterns are the traditional patterns our grandmothers used – double wedding rings, Dresden plate, churn dash.  Does anyone even know what a church dash is today?  These patterns have been passed down the generations and traded by neighbors.  And that’s how Mary got hers.

     Her favorite of those she still has is the Ohio rose, an appliqued quilt.  Another appliqued quilt, a blue design of flowers, took her two years to make.

     “I wouldn’t sell that one for hundreds of dollars,” she said.  “It had so many tiny pieces to cut out and sew.”

     Like the quilters of old, Mary believes in making use of what you have, and two of her quilts have interesting histories.

     Before they retired, Mary and her husband owned a paint, wallpaper and decorating store in Madeira.  The wallpaper sample books always had fabric swatches in them to match the wallpaper samples.  Mary saved those bits of cloth and has made two quilts from them – the double wedding ring and the Boston commons.  The double wedding ring is a stunning quilt.

     When it comes to putting the quilts together and doing the actual quilting, Mary does that all by hand too.

     To layer the quilt, she clears out enough floor space and lays the quilt out on the floor.  First the lining, then the batting, with the pieced top on the top.  Then she carefully hand bastes it.

    “No pins,” she said.  “I like to get in basted together really good.  It doesn’t take long.”

     Then she hand quilts it, using a hoop frame.  “ I can sit and quilt while watching TV or listening to the radio,” she said.

    Mary admits to being 86 years old, but she’s active and agile.  “And the doctor says my vision is good for a person my age,” she said.

     It’s certainly good enough for her to make all those teeny, tiny stitches.

     Mary has good advice for taking care of those beautiful quilts after they’re made.  “You should never store quilts in plastic bags.  Always use paper or an old pillow case,” she said.  “And fold the design to the inside.”

     And quilts should be washed very carefully, she advises.  Just let them soak.  Do not agitate in the washer.  Rinse and line dry.

     Mary thinks the secret to a beautiful quilt is the colors used.  “I like to plan my colors,” she said, “and put the colors together to make an artistic quilt.” Her favorite colors to use are blues, purples and greens.

Mary has not thought of slowing down or stopping quilting.  She already has a top finished, ready to layer and quilt, to keep her busy in the long winter days ahead.

     And Mary has encouraged me to do the same.  She gave me some of her patterns; along with sample blocks she made for me, showing how to assemble the patterns.  Heirloom quilting, here I come.