Mercer Museum presents ‘The Mary Schafer Collection: A Legacy of Quilt History’

The soft and the small

A reverent hush greets visitors as they walk into The Mary Schafer Collection: A Legacy of Quilt History, at Doylestown’s Mercer Museum. With 25 quilts Schafer made and collected adorning the museum’s high walls, a cozy, quiet, intimate feeling attends the exhibit of this work of an important early designer who helped popularize the art of quilting.

'Grapes and Vines,' by Mary Schafer, c. 1972. Cotton with Polyester Batting, 88 x 98. Mary Schafer’s 'Grapes and Vines' is patterned after a quilt pictured in Marie Webster’s classic 1915 book, Quilts. The intricate appliqué design was a trademark of Webster’s work. Schafer received the pattern from the estate of Betty Harriman in 1971. (Photo by KEVA, all rights reserved, Michigan State University Museum.)

Piece by piece

Born in 1910 in Austria-Hungary and later immigrating to the United States, Schafer helped keep quilt studies alive between World War II and the quilt revival of the 1970s. The exhibit becomes an exploration of U.S. history, supplementing Schafer’s rich work and collection with biographical information drawn from her own letter collection and ephemera acquired by the Michigan State University Museum.

The first quilt displayed, “Poppy Wreath,” features appliqué. It was the second quilt Schafer ever made, constructed from a kit produced by the Progress Company. It shows a design with a central medallion and floral motif, typical, according to the museum notes, of a midcentury quilt. It and the nearby “Flowering Almond,” with its red, green, and yellow floral pattern, are breathtaking.

A “Linden Mill” quilt, circa 1900, from an unknown maker, inspired Schafer to attempt her own version, hung right alongside the original in the exhibit. This was one of my favorites, complex in its simplicity of repeating red-and-white triangles making up adjoining diamonds.

The most playful quilt in the collection comes near the end. Schafer collaborated on it as a “piecer,” someone who sews small pieces of cloth into a pattern, or block, then passes the piece on to another person, who sews it onto the finished quilt top. A vibrant array of designs with the words “Q is for Quilt” are sewn along the bottom hem. This project was inspired by a children’s book and renders the alphabet in colorful patterns.

Colonial Revival House, 1977-79, Charles Bates, Builder. Gift of Sharon Holloway, 2017. (Photo courtesy of the Mercer Museum.)
Colonial Revival House, 1977-79, Charles Bates, Builder. Gift of Sharon Holloway, 2017. (Photo courtesy of the Mercer Museum.)

An extra treat for all ages

The collection is not only beautiful to look at but also brims with historical import — both personal and public. In the “Sawtooth” quilt, for instance, the pattern of boxed triangles of different sizes and colors began to take shape in 1876 at the hands of a woman named Matilda Vary. But the entire piece wasn’t finished until 1980, after Schafer found it and lent her skill.

A Legacy of Quilt History may not be the most exciting exhibit for children. But they might like the accompanying Small Worlds: The Sharon Holloway Dollhouse and Miniatures Collection, five exquisite dollhouses and structures being exhibited for the first time alongside Schafer’s quilts.

Though some of the houses are too dimly lit to see fully inside, the incredible detail of the country store, with its tiny spools of thread, miniature pumpkins, petite bags of onions, and even a small dartboard over the replica of a coal-burning stove, is delightful. The Georgian revival townhouse and yard are so intricately furnished that there is even a framed portrait of Holloway’s grandchildren hung on the wall of the main staircase. Holloway was also a quilter, and many of her textiles decorate the floors and beds of these dollhouses.

Overall, the two collections complement and enhance one another. For city dwellers looking for a field trip to the country — and to a bygone era — these exhibits are sure to refresh and are definitely worth the drive, especially if combined with lunch and a stroll through this charming Bucks County borough.

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