Mary Barton

Mary Alice Pemble Barton (1917-2003) composed her life with fabric and thread and fueled it with curiosity and creativity. She started sewing her own dresses in grade school, often winning Iowa State Fair ribbons for her work. At night Mary slept beneath quilts her grandmothers made for her and quilts passed down through generations, but did not start making quilts until after she began studying and collecting them.

How it began

In 1967, Mary purchased a Wild Goose Chase quilt and a box of indigo scraps at an auction. This purchase marked the beginning of a new focus for Mary’s lifelong penchant for research and learning—collecting to facilitate quilt studies. At the time, the scarcity of published information about quilts added impetus to Mary’s investigation.

A self-taught quilter, Mary learned through trial and error and considered some of her early efforts as failures. Inspired by her research into 19th– and 20th-century quilts and quilters, Mary designed her Heritage Quilt to document her ancestors’ journeys to Iowa. She became recognized expert as a textile researcher, lecturer, and quilt historian and was inducted into the Quilters Hall of Fame in 1984.

Quilt and Textile Legacy

Mary began donating her enormous collection to the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa State University, and Living History Farms in 1989. “Mary’s desire to collect, understand, and share resulted in one of the most comprehensive collections of quilts, costumes, and fashion plates ever assembled and donated to public institutions,” Pat Nickols wrote in Mary’s Hall of Fame biography. Her donations included hundreds of quilts, historical clothing samples, quilt block study panels, more than 100 fabric study notebooks, fashion studies by decade, quilt patterns, templates, women’s magazines—and more.

This exhibition showcases Mary’s lifelong quest to learn all she could about quilting and the woman who made those quilts. You’ll hear more about her family quilts, quilts she made and quilts she purchased to further understand the women of the 19th century.

I was working towards a someday book. Hopefully my research will help you understand the quilting woman of the 19th century—her lifestyle—the magazines she read (if she could read), her schooling, her household tasks, her travels, her possible employment—and of course if she was affected by emigration or migration.

Mary Pemble Barton