Thursday, June 25, 2015

Mimi Dietrich Interveiw - 2015 TQHF Honoree

The Baltimore Quilt Revival started in Maryland and Mimi Dietrich played a large part in it. With her encouragement, her students formed the Baltimore Applique Society, a group that has promoted Baltimore Album quilts and raised money donated to museums to restore and display the quilts of this style.” AQSG member Phyllis Hatcher Twigg 

Quilting with Mimi Dietrich

Interview by Karen B. Alexander

It's hard to realize just how many years have passed since the exhibit "Baltimore Album Quilts"  debuted, first at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas (November 18, 1980 - January 11, 1981); then The Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art, New York ( June 30 - August 30, 1981) and finally at the Baltimore Museum of Art (December 13, 1981 - February 7, 1982).  The Baltimore Museum of Art published its catalogue of the exhibit under the same title, Baltimore Album Quilts. The exhibit and book were produced by Dena Katzenburg(If you are lucky, you may be able to find a copy for less than $75.00.)

The first person to research and document this particular style of quilt was male and 
among the first 5 people inducted into The Quilters Hall of Fame in 1979 - 
Dr. William Rush Dunton of Baltimore.

The Honorees of The Quilters Hall of Fame are an amazing group of people, yet they are each unique as individuals. I like to attempt to present more than one side of an Honoree when I research and write about them. Doing a live interview offers me this opportunity. 

An oral interview is “in the moment” and though questions are prepared ahead, one never knows where an interview will actually go if you let it remain spontaneous. Mimi Dietrich is a joyful person and I hope the interview reflects that. In a future article about Mimi, I hope to share more about her endeavors for she is indeed one very accomplished woman!  So on with the Show! 

 Quilting with Mimi Dietrich

Mimi, how and when did you become interested in quilting?

When I graduated from college, I became a middle school teacher. In 1972, I discovered a store called Stretch and Sew and decided to quit my real job and go to work there. It was the best decision I ever made.  We were trained in some incredible sewing techniques with stretch fabrics. The owner, Vicki Drammis, taught me so much more than basic sewing: how to teach adults, how to adjust pattern sizes, and even marketing skills. While I was working there, three of us became pregnant at the same time, and we decided we would make quilts.  I had never made one before but thought “If they can do it, I can do it.”  That was 1974.  One made a Hawaiian quilt, one made a patchwork quilt, and I made an applique quilt, Sunbonnet Sue and Bill. 

I went for quilts with “things” on them, rather than abstract designs.  I was influenced by some of the magazines on the market at the time.  Good Housekeeping comes to mind.  I found Sunbonnet Sue there, and I really wanted a little girl, but I had to put the boy figures on, too, since I didn’t know if the baby I was expecting was boy or girl.

Did your mother or other family members get you started in textile arts?

My great grandmother made quilts in the 1930s for my mom’s family.  There were 8 children in my mom’s family and each had a quilt made for them.  My Mom's quilt was a Dresden Plate and I slept under it growing up.  I remember picking apart some of the stitches, wondering how they were made.  Mom embroidered, but she did not quilt.  The lady next door sewed and she really got me started in sewing.

My 16-year old niece and 10-year old granddaughter are friends with the 13 and 16-year old next door, and they are all learning how to sew from “Grammy”.  Now they can all reach the foot pedal, but at the beginning, my Bernina has a neat button that let them sew without the pedal. They love it!

What was the next step toward your teaching?

I tried to stay working at Stretch and Sell, but it didn’t work out.  After having children, I decided I couldn’t be a full-time employee.  But I did have some other jobs, like teaching people how to use sewing machines at Sears.  I had no fear of trying to take a sewing machine apart to see how it works.  I was always wondering what I would be when I grow up.  I was thinking of going back to be recertified as a middle school teacher when someone said how would I like to teach 4-year-olds? I loved the experience!  

Then I read the book “What Color is Your Parachute?”  As I answered the questions, it led me in the direction of realizing “I want to write a book!”

My friend Dallas Clautice owned a quilt shop, Quilt Heaven, and asked me if I would teach a class on finishing quilts, called “Happy Endings,” and it wound up being the title of my first book.  I took my children’s Fisher Price tape recorder to the shop and taped the class.  What I had was a fabulous outline of how the book would go.  I also captured the questions people asked during class, and that helped organize the book.  I thought of taking a notebook, but a tape recorder worked much better.

Who are some of your early influences in quilting?

In 1977 I read that Jinny Beyer won the Good Housekeeping quilting contest, so I went to Washington DC and took a drafting class with her. She was a great teacher. By the end of the class, I felt like I could draw any pattern you could think of.  The other influence was Bonnie Leman of Quilter’s Newsletter Magazine. Anna Holland and Ann Oliver’s quilts (both of Northern Virginia) also had a great impact on me.  My reaction to their quilts was “Wow!  Who would think to do that?”   I also met Hazel Carter about this same time, the founder of the Continental Quilting Congress in 1978 and a year later she founded The Quilters Hall of Fame. How wonderful that she imagined bringing quilters together to share their ideas and show their quilts….and made it all happen!

What were some of your key decisions that led you to enter the quilt world?

First, giving up middle-school teaching and learning how to sew at Stretch and Sew. The second was the Fisher Price tape recording of my class at the quilt shop.  But the third was the Baltimore Museum of Art exhibit in the early 1980s.  It was amazing.  I’d seen quilt exhibits before that, but this one blew me away, partly because it was applique, partly the colors (reds and greens), the details of the stitches. And it was all in my hometown!  

The Baltimore Museum of Art published its catalogue of the exhibit 
(Dec 13, 1981 - Feb 7, 1982) under the same title, Baltimore Album Quilts. 
The exhibit and book were produced by Dena Katzenburg.

1846-47 - the Samuel Williams Quilt (Click here for the history researched and written
by Debby Cooney of the Baltimore Applique Society)

I especially remember the blocks that looked like 
paper-cut doilies
Mimi Dietrich with Emily Pleton, "my quilter's apprentice" says Mimi. The red heart block in the above quilt is an example of a paper cut doilie reverse appliqué quilt block.

I especially remember the blocks that looked like paper-cut doilies, a type of reverse applique. These were made in the 1840s and 1850s, when people didn’t have the light, the technology or the free time we enjoy today. 

There were nine of us that saw that exhibit together. One was Dallas Clautice, the quilt shop owner. We looked at each other and said, “if women in Baltimore over 100 years ago could do this, we can, too.”  Then we set out to create a wide array of designs and made 9 copies of each block and swapped. 

The women who made the first album with me — Barbara,
Margaret, me, Dottie, Norma, Laurie, Dallas Clautice about 1984.

Dallas Clautice, the woman who owned the quilt shop I mentioned earlier, said “Why don’t you teach a class?”  That inspired me to design a Baltimore pattern that was simpler than the traditional ones. I taught that class in 1986. That class launched me into the teaching of Baltimore Album applique.  I started with a little block, loosely based on antique blocks, with each block having Baltimore elements, like flowers, leaves, baskets, wreaths. 

In 1989 I was then asked to teach at another quilt shop, Seminole Sampler, from Elly Sienkiewicz’s book, “Baltimore’s Beauties and Beyond”.  The first time I taught the class we had five sessions with fifteen students in each session....that's 75 students. I had a blast teaching them. Baltimore quilts are traditionally red and green, but some students didn’t like red and green so I told them to pick a color or design they did like. Some students even used batik fabrics. I told them, “It's your quilt! Use the colors and designs you like!"

I remember thinking back then that “I need to make one of every type of quilt.”  Eventually I did make many of them.

(above) Jennifer Goldsborough, curator; Jeana Kimball, Mimi Dietrich, Karen Ringrose
The meeting at the Maryland Historical Society that started the 

Who was your most trusted advisor?

Friends in the quilt guilds I belong to! So many wonderful friends!
A Baltimore Bouquet class in the 1990s

"Our first raffle quilt  'City Springs' 1993. Note the t-shirts that match the quilt border!"
 (Elly Sienkiewicz in the dark outfit with Mimi Dietrich to her left.)

At what point did your work become a business?

When I wrote my second book, I knew this was serious. The person responsible for that is Nancy Martin. (She published my first book, too.)  After my first book, at Quilt Market, she put her hand on my shoulder and said, “What is Mimi going to do next?”  I thought that I had said all I wanted to say in “Happy Endings”, but then I thought about the next book and the next. I have stayed with Martingale and Company - That Patchwork Place through 17 books now.  

I wrote three Baltimore books, beginning with “Baltimore Bouquets” (1992). The latest is "Baltimore Blocks for Beginners".  My students like dimensional appliqué techniques.  “Baltimore Bouquets” had about 20 blocks, smaller blocks, so they could trace patterns right off of the page. That’s kind of my style – smaller blocks with fewer pieces, to simplify the process and get people started.  A lot of students are satisfied with that, while others want more, but I provide them with the starting point.  Some of my students have gone on to teach classes. Marylou McDonald is one of them. I think technology has made a big difference in how quilters share today.

Speaking of new technology, how do you feel it has affected your business?

The Internet has made a lot of opportunities possible for teachers like myself that weren’t available to earlier generations. I now work with Craftsy, which is an on-line platform with classes in quilting, knitting and crocheting plus other subjects, like woodworking.  They’re only about 3-4 years old, based in Denver. A cameraman at Craftsy said that the business has really taken off due to new technology – like portable tablets. Some classes are free. In paid classes, the teacher will even get back to you if you type in questions.  I emailed and said I would like to teach an applique class.  They wanted me to do a finishing class, but I wanted to do an applique class.  Then they mentioned scallops.  I ended up doing “Finishing School,” starting with the back of the quilt, binding, etc.

I did this just over a year ago, and there have been 21,000 students so far.  The students’ questions have not been overwhelming at all.  Most of the common questions are already answered.  This technology makes it possible for me to teach over 20,000 without leaving home!  That’s equivalent to over 1,000 classes in my previous style of teaching. It's really amazing!

Eventually I flew out to Denver a second time and got to tape the applique class I had wanted to do in the first place.  I had a wonderful time doing it.  They are in the process of editing it now.  You think you cover everything, but then I got a question from them, “do you wash your fabric first?” And I realized I had forgotten to say that!  "Hand Appliqué Made Easy” now also has more students than I could ever imagine….what a great way to teach!

"Welcome to Baltimore" - 1994 - 31" x 31"
From my book "The Easy Art of Applique"
Have you encountered any “lone” quilters via your on-line classes that don’t belong to a guild?

From the questions people ask, I can tell who is trying to do it all alone.  I expected questions rather than testimonials, but I heard wonderful feedback from people who were very thankful to learn this craft. The classes cost $30 or $40 but they have sales all the time.  Marketing is via Facebook, email blasts, and blogs.  If you sign up with them, you’ll hear from them every day.  Their marketing is incredible!

What about The Modern Quilt Movement? Why do you think they felt the need to start a whole new quilt conference?

Because most of them are younger and they had a new vision – cleaner, simpler designs, fast and easy because of time.  The next generation of quilters want to live more simply, minimalistic.  They don’t have lots of magazines, clutter, etc.  It’s kind of a revolution against a quilt filled with so many different design elements.  They have given the design “space”. And they can make this type of quilt without a lot of free time. It's important to listen to and inspire younger quilters!

"Baltimore Basics" – 2006 - 56"x 56"
From the book "Mimi Dietrich's Baltimore Basics"

Do you ever get asked to teach teens, or college-age groups?

Yes.  My major was American Studies.  It was the perfect preparation for quilting.  The University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) was founded in 1966, when I graduated from high school and I went there when it opened.  One of the things I did several years ago was go back to UMBC and asked if they had ever taught quilting, which they called “material culture” (a neat term), so I taught a class for mostly older (returning) students but my favorite students were women's basketball players and art students.  I taught about Baltimore history, got a grant from NQA, to take them shopping at the quilt shop to buy anything they wanted — colors, good fabric.  The women and the girls in the class were so excited.

Could you share an anecdote from your years of teaching?

I've been teaching my year-long Baltimore class for 20+ years.  Very often, people finish a quilt.  Others come without much to show or tell and nothing to finish.  I find out later that they took the class because they had a loss in their life.  Those who lost a child often can’t talk about it then, but I find out later.  Then they say something like “Taking your class got me through.”  That’s when you can believe in the power of what you do.  I later met stitchers who worked on the Star-Spangled Banner Flag Project who were using that to get through a bad time.

Many people feel a unique since of history embedded in a quilt because others have touched it through the generations – “grandma touched this.” Like Walt Disney said (in the new Tom Hanks movie): “Isn’t life magic?” Quilts are magic to me.

Years ago, when I had young boys who ate my cooking or messed up my cleaning, I really treasured my quilting stitches. When I was quilting, I often thought, “Nobody can take this away from me.”   

"Baltimore Hon" – 2012 - 41" x41"
Made in a class with MaryLou Weidman

Tell me about the Fort McHenry Star-Spangled Banner Replica Flag Project. I understand you were very involved in the project that duplicated the original flag that flew over Fort Henry?

Mimi Dietrich with Kristen Schenning and Beverly Schenning 
from the Stitching History project.

2014 is the 200th anniversary of the poem Francis Scott Key wrote after watching the bombardment of Fort Henry from a British ship in Baltimore Harbor. As the sun came up, he could still see the 30 feet by 42 feet flag waving over Fort McHenry.  That’s what inspired our National Anthem. That flag is now in the Smithsonian.  Last year was the 200th anniversary of the making of that flag by Mary Pickersgill.  Kristin Shenning, the education director at the Maryland Historical Society, decided to make a reproduction of that flag.  About 200 volunteers signed up to work on the flag, it was very much like making a quilt.

Kristin’s mom, Beverly Schenning, was in charge of the stripes.  I was in charge of the stars.  We started on July 4, 2013.  By the end of July we were ready for the canton with the stars. The appliquéd stars were two feet wide, made of kona cotton.  The flag itself is wool.  Stitching on wool is like stitching on gauzy fabric.  We were able to accomplish 17 threads per inch on the stars, so they did not tear the wool. We cut away the blue behind the stars, appliqueing the raw the edges, in a form of reverse appliqué.  It was challenging, fun, exciting, it was a social experience – 200 people working on a big project, and more than 1000 people taking stitches in the flag. Amazing!

In 1814 Mary Pickersgill made the original flag by August 22.  Only we had air conditioning and a huge room and 200 volunteers and 1000 people coming through on “public stitching days,” making one or two stitches.  The news coverage was incredible. We had politicians, the mayor of Baltimore and TV reporters.  Last year on September 14 (2013), known as Defenders' Day in Baltimore, they flew this flag over Fort McHenry.  We all got to go inside and hold the flag, becoming a part of history.

This year (2014), with the Star Spangled 200 celebration, we had Tall Ships and Blue Angels flying over.  To the minute, our flag went up the pole again.  It was shown at the Milwaukee American Quilt Study Group conference and it thrilled everyone, made chills run up your spine.  The project was called “Stitching History”. Two ladies who were descendants of Mary Pickersgill were part of the celebration, coming up from Texas.

A ranger at Fort McHenry talked about “the power of place.”  I almost didn’t go to the celebration this year, and that ranger called me to urge me to come. I am ever so glad I did.

"Baltimore circa 2008" - finished in 2008 - 84" x 84"

You just mentioned you are getting ready for another teaching trip.  How far ahead do you prepare for a program?

Bags are packed way ahead of time for the class needs itself because that, to me, is the easy part.  If you’re teaching a class, you have a class check-list and that makes packing very easy to manage, but ‘what clothes will I wear on the trip’ is a more difficult last-minute decision. 

Do you write a blog?

I started writing it on July 4, 2013, at the start of the Star-Spangled Banner flag project in Baltimore, so a lot of it has to do with the flag project.  Now, I write once or twice a month.

One thing I need to say before we close —  it’s amazing to be recognized for just doing something I love.  It’s overwhelming.

Yes, Mimi Dietrich, stitches do stay put and leave a legacy!  You are a living proof of that adage. 

It has been my great pleasure to interview you for The Quilters Hall of Fame, Mimi. 

Thank you for your time and your open heart!

Karen B. Alexander

Interviewer's final notes:

Mimi Dietrich has also been an inspiration to many a cancer survivor. To read her inspirational writings be sure to visit her blog by clicking here Mimi’s Cancer Journey and see her book Pink Ribbon Quilts: A Book Because of Breast Cancer by Mimi Dietrich, published 1999 by Martingale And Company.

I hope many quilt lovers plan to attend Mimi Deitrich's induction in Marion, Indiana, July 16-18, 2015. Click on Mimi's name to learn more about attending.

The 1851 Mary Mannikee Quilt is on exhibit at the DAR in Washington D.C. until Sept. 5 2015 in the DAR Museum's exhibit "Eye on Elegance: Early Quilts of Md and Va" along with their other album quilts. Visit them at

Some of the quilts that inspired Mimi Dietrich at the Baltimore Museum of Art back in 1982 are seen below.

(Click here for the history researched and written 
by Debby Cooney of the Baltimore Applique Society)

Baltimore album Quilt made for Miss Elizabeth Sliver in the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Gift of the Friends of the American wing (BMA 76.93)