Story By: Mary Ellen Thompson | Photography By : John Wollworth
The small sewing group of ladies met in the back of a fabric and smocking shop on Craven and Charles Streets called Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard to learn to quilt. Four of the group, Marjorie Smith, Blanche Gault, Barbara Walters, and Peg Allen pioneered the group into creating an official quilters guild in 1987. There were fourteen or fifteen of participants and they held their first meeting at the Pigeon Point Senior Citizens Center where they named themselves Sea Island Quilters, adopted by-laws from the Cobblestone Quilters in Charleston, and just celebrated their thirtieth anniversary this May.
An original member of the group which has now more than tripled in size, Mary Campbell enjoys being their spokesperson. When the Sea Island Quilters started the group, they chose a theme for a block of the month and everyone made a block; they drew a name and that person won all the blocks. According to Mary, “There were no experienced quilters when we started, so we all just learned from each other. We had people come and teach us and do workshops. We have quite an outreach program where we make quilts to give away; we’ve given hundreds of quilts away! Every year we have an annual challenge where we have a theme for a quilt – this year it was Santa Elena and our quilts were hung in the history center. We’ve had interesting themes like fortune cookies, water, songs, the millennium, and the tricentennial. We meet once a month at 6 p.m. on the third Thursday but we’re nomads at the moment, because the church we were using is undergoing renovations. (If you’re interested call Karen Guinn 843-525-6036 to find out the location.) Anyone is welcome and the dues are $25 a year.”
The Campbell home is filled with beautiful textiles that Mary had sewn, quilted, appliquéd, and embroidered herself as well as others that have been given to her as gifts. On the living room wall is a quilt that was made for Mary and her husband, Buddy, as a wedding gift. On the backs of the sofas and chairs, quilts are neatly folded and ready for those chilly nights. Mary’s upstairs workshop has squares and pieces of fabrics, some neatly sorted into piles and others, because of the sheer amount of them, are stuffed into a shelving unit. She still has her first sewing basket. The guest room has a not only a basket of quilts but also a big pile atop a wooden luggage rack in addition to the quilt hanging behind the bed, one on the bed, one thrown over a chair and smaller pieces hanging on the walls.
Mary Campbell loves textiles and especially quilts. She has one quilt in particular, which she calls her “blankey”, that she made long ago of flannel and corduroy that travels with her wherever she goes. She says it has seen better days but she takes it when she travels enjoys it’s comfort and warmth while riding in the car or on the bed of a hotel.
Her passion began way back when. “I’ve always sewn. My grandmother taught me basic embroidery stitches when I was very young. When I was in third grade I was sick and out of school for weeks at a time. My mother sat me in front of her sewing machine and taught me how to sew. I was given a toy sewing machine and made doll clothes.”
Originally from Georgia, Mary came to Beaufort in 1979; when she first arrived here she went to work for Beaufort Memorial Hospital in administration and became Director of Public Relations. From there, she went to work for Environments, Inc. which was a local school supply company for early childhood education. She stayed with them for thirty years and happily remembers, “I met a lot pf people and had the opportunity to travel. Environments, Inc. gave me the chance to use my communication and creativity skills. I was on the catalog production and marketing teams as a copywriter. I also helped with product development and materials sourcing for our sewing center. Working on various types of projects with very talented people was both fun and rewarding.”
“In 1979 some friends gave me one of their family quilts. I had never seen the pattern before so I went to the library to research it and became interested in quilts and their history. Then, in 1983 the South Carolina Quilt Project was documenting quilts at the McKissick Museum in Columbia, SC. Quilts were photographed and the family history was recorded for the database. I volunteered and one of the quilts for which I did the intake made it into one of the books produced as a result.”
Mary recalls, “I’d never made a quilt and I wanted to make one. There was a Navy wife here who was teaching the Eleanor Burns “Quilt in a Day” class in her home, so I took the class.” With dry humor, Mary continues “Of course they didn’t mention that there are 24 hours in a day.”
With so many from which to choose, it would be difficult to find a favorite but Mary produces one of which she is especially fond. The center, a tree of life design, is one panel of fabric and the piecing is done all around the edges. “I’ve made many tree quilts, but they were all pieced.”
A purist at heart, Mary prefers the old, original, traditional patterns. As one would expect, she saves clothing and scraps of fabric that can be repurposed; 100% cotton, or natural fibers are her preference. Mary confides she has had some corduroy skirts hanging in her closet for awhile that she envisions using for a quilt one of these days, recalling the old adage, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”
A quilt hangs over the top of the stairwell that Mary points to that has not only a complicated piecing pattern, but also a very complex quilting pattern, and she quilted that one herself. Some, she sends out to be quilted, but nevertheless, she laughs and produces a small fabric tag on which is printed, “This took forever.” There should be one attached to every piece she has sewn.
The most current project Mary completed is a series of twelve wool appliqué rectangles with birds for each month of the year. Mary explains that this is for Buddy, who is a birder. They have taken the course on Spring Island to be SC Master Naturalists, Buddy is the editor of their newsletter and Mary writes the member profiles. She is also interning to be a Master Gardener.
Quilts, it turns out, are not just something to keep you warm on a chilly night. They represent the maker’s like, the maker’s skills, and all that the maker might do in the future. They are microcosms which, fortunately, Mary Campbell is happy to share with us.