Joy Combs Spence (JS): My name is Joy Combs Spence and today’s date is April 26, 2010. This is 3:00 p.m. I am conducting an interview with Mary Kay [Carrico.] Davis in Sunnyvale, California for the Quilters’ S.O.S.-Save Our Stories project. We are doing this through the American Heritage Committee of the California State Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Mary Kay Davis is a quilter and is a member of the Santa Clara Chapter. Mary Kay, I would like you to tell me about the quilt you brought in today, “It’s Never Pointless.”
Mary Kay Davis (MKD): Okay. Originally I designed the quilt back in 2004 for a Moda Challenge. The challenge was to use their fabric which was about twelve different neutrals and create your own design and then you could use any other fabric you want, but it still had to be Moda, on the top of the quilt. So this was the first time I’d ever really done any sort of design of my own, not using someone else’s pattern. And I think I went a little bit crazy because I included so many teeny, tiny little triangles. The center blocks are sort of a prairie style; I don’t know what else to call it, and then the outer blocks are just ascending triangles? I guess maybe you could call them birds of flight. The point of the quilt for me was more about the piecing. The quilting is pretty rudimentary it continues the motif of all the triangles and that’s why it’s called “It’s Never Pointless” ’cause just about anywhere you’re going to set your eye, you’re going to see a triangle or a point, some sharper than others. This quilt has been a lot of fun for me because a lot of things have happened to me because of the quilt. A lady saw the quilt at a show and she asked me to be in her book and so she sent me a letter and asked me to be in a book called, “100 Tips from Award Winning Quilters” [by Ann Hazelwood.] and that was very exciting for me, I’d never had anything published before and she asked me for a quilting tip and I talked about using rulers, I think. And then I–it gave me enough confidence when somebody liked the quilt for me to submit it to a bigger quilt show and I submitted it to the Road to California quilt show. I think it was in maybe 2006 and it took 1st place traditional in the wall quilt category. And so that was very exciting because then I went down to the show and I saw the quilt hanging in the show and I got a blue ribbon and that was a lot of fun. And, not too long ago, the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky, asked guilds to send quilts from the Pacific Rim–so California, Oregon, you know, the coast–and just to submit quilts and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll do that, but everybody’s going to submit a quilt.’ In my guild, [Santa Clara Valley Quilt Association.] we have almost 500 people in our guild, [laughs.] and they called and they said ‘Your quilt’s been accepted.’ And what that meant was I got to see my quilt hanging in the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky. So once again I got to get an airplane ticket and fly out to Paducah and have my picture taken in the museum and it was very exciting. I had never been to Paducah before. I had never been to the museum before and the quilt’s just been great. It’s done a lot of things for me.
JS: I’m interested in the fabrics that are being used in the quilt. Suppose you tell us about that.
MKD: Okay, so originally the neutrals were the basis of the quilt, which was kind of fun because you know they go with everything; but then I needed to find some sort of a focal fabric, and I went to Carolea’s Knitche in Sunnyvale [California.], my–one of my–favorite shops at the time, and they had that black fabric with the floral print in it and I really liked that that just, that called to me. So I tried to pick all the other colors out of the black focal fabric and I think that sort of tied it all together.
JS: So what colors do you say we have in this quilt?
MKD: They’re fairly soft or muted like a maybe a chambray blue, and a soft red, and a very soft green, highlighted by the black and then the neutrals kind of give it a little just of a background.
JS: What kind of a setting would we put the quilt in if we were going to put it into a room?
MKD: Oh my, I don’t know. It’s a pretty traditional quilt. I don’t know I’d probably put it into my family room [laughs.]
JS: Beiges, blacks?
MKD: Beiges, blacks, oh I think against a beige wall. I had it on a beige wall at my house, and it stands out pretty well. I wouldn’t put it on a really dark background.
JS: Well, I feel that this quilt has a special meaning for you. Did you–how do you feel about it now that it’s hanging and been traveled around and more people have seen it? How do you feel about it now?
MKD: Oh, it’s kind of dear to my heart. It was one of the first ones I’d ever designed. It gave me confidence to do more things and I think I think of it more that way that it gave me confidence to do try other things and to try new things.
JS: Now, why did you choose this quilt to bring to the interview?
MKD: I choose it because it was one of the first ones I’d designed and I’m being sort of repetitive here, but I took some chances on it. I tried some settings I hadn’t used before, on-point. I was fairly new to quilting when I started this. I’d only been quilting a couple years and it was stepping stone for me to move on to do other things.
JS: How do you think someone viewing this quilt might view you as a quilter and as a person?
MKD: I think they’d say, ‘She’s pretty traditional.’ [laughs.] They’re not going to go, ‘Oh, abstract.’ Maybe not so much more about–it would be more about the piecing than the quilting, I think. They’d go, ‘Oh, she likes to do her piecing. She likes little, tiny pieces.’ Which I don’t really like but I think they–I don’t like piecing them, but I think they look really good once they’ve been pieced.
JS: Well, your smallest piece looks to me like it’s one inch in diameter.
MKD: Those, those are pretty tiny. [laughs.]
JS: And to piece that and to have it work out as well as it has is a kind of an original thought I think. [Mary Kay laughs in background.] It’s very beautiful, very beautiful indeed. I like the blue background, mostly, and it seems to make the other colors stand out. Is that how you felt about it?
MKD: Blue is my favorite color. It was going to be in there no matter what.
JS: Now, how do you use this quilt in your everyday life?
MKD: Well right now it’s being stored on my son’s bunk bed. I have found since that I’ve made a number of other quilts and I try to rotate them. And so things come out and things get put away.
JS: Do you have any further plans for display of this quilt?
MKD: If I had another wall, it would probably be up all the time, but I’ve run out of walls.
JS: Do you plan to enter it into any other contests?
MKD: I actually just did and in an odd way. [Joy laughs in background.] There is a contest currently going on, on a website [www.accuquilt.com.], to design a block for a barn wall and they said it had–they’re going to be 20’ x 20’ painted on a barn. I think in Nebraska. So I took a portion of the quilt, which is actually made up of about nine of the blocks, and I edited out some of it and I used it and I submitted four of the nine as a single block and we’ll see if it gets painted or not.
JS: Mary Kay, what do you think makes a great quilt?
MKD: A lot of it for me is about color. I seem to be struck by color. In fact this quilt is a little bit unusual for me because it fairly muted. I like really bright colors and I like things that just sort of–they stand out and grab you and it could be anything too. After I see the color, the original design. I’m always fascinated by amazing quilting. Where do they come up with the idea for how to quilt something, because that’s something that stumps me. You know, I might–I can piece forever and I’ll lay it down and or I’ll put it on the design wall and I’ll go, ‘I have no idea how to quilt this quilt.’ And I know that there are people that design their quilting first. They’ll figure out how they’re going to quilt it and then they’ll design the quilt around it and I’m just–that’s very difficult for me.
JS: What do you think makes a quilt artistically powerful?
MKD: Again it’s the color, the design, sometimes it can even be about the size. I recently saw some miniature quilts, you know, 12″ x 12″ and I was just stunned by the workmanship, and the craft, the craftsmanship of putting together those tiny little pieces and then you’ll go see a quilt that’s the size of a whole wall and you wonder, ‘How did they fit that in their sewing room or under their sewing machine?’ Things like that fascinate me–how things are done.
JS: Well now, this quilt is 54″ x 54″ would you consider putting it into miniature?
MKD: Not on your life. [Joy and Mary Kay both laugh.]
JS: Well you have so many small, small pieces but it would certainly be a challenge wouldn’t it?
MKD: It’d be fun. [laughter.]
JS: Whose works are you drawn to and can you give a reason why you like them?
MKD: I was recently looking at Sharon Schamber’s work. She’s won a number of awards and I’m just–I was looking at one of hers today. She called it her competition quilt in process, or something like that. And she does just fabulous–I believe she’s a longarm quilter, I think that’s how she does it. She had white and the most intricate quilting and she did it all in black. So the contrast and just knowing you couldn’t make a mistake. That to me, and again, how did she come up with these quilting designs in her head? I wonder, did she plan it out ahead of time? Caryl Bryer Fallert is another one. She does beautiful color. Her colors are so beautiful, and she does a lot of interesting piecing, curved piecing. I’m always fascinated by that and I don’t know if I have any particular favorites. I just see a quilt that I like and I like it. [laughs.]
JS: Are you drawn to the Amish–
MKD: Yes, again, that’s about the colors again and the design is very simple and the color is pretty much what makes it and, of course, the hand quilting. Again, just absolutely fabulous hand quilting.
JS: How do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting? This is a burning question in many quilters lives and then we’ll get to the longarm quilting next, but right at the present time, how about machine quilting versus hand?
MKD: Well, I’ll have to tell you a story. When I first started quilting, I took a quilt-as-you-go class. It was my very first quilting class. And I didn’t know what to expect, and I had this wonderful teacher. I took it at the Granary [in Sunnyvale, California.], her name was Leah Jespersen, and she taught you how to use templates, and she taught you how to do everything the old-fashioned way, if you want to call it that. And, the new way with rotary cutters and she taught hand quilting. And I didn’t know it but I thought it was a class like high school and you had homework and you had to finish it. And so I hand quilted that thing in four weeks. I thought you had to have it done at the end of class and that was the last thing I ever hand quilted. [laughter.] Since then, I’ve taken some classes on machine quilting, which I really enjoy and in its own way has its own challenges. I would love to be able to hand quilt. I think it’s absolutely beautiful. I for one don’t have the time and I tried to practice but I just never got any good at it and when the machine quilting became more popular and more accepted, I think it was just easier for me to do.
JS: Well this has beautiful machine quilting, I must say, because you kept very close to the master fabric and that I think adds to its beauty. Can you tell us what sort of tools that you use in this on your machine?
MKD: I just have a regular home sewing machine. I love my walking foot, because it keeps the layers all together. Once in a while, lately, I’ve experimented with some of the fancier stitches on my machine. You know, maybe a little bit of a–oh, I can’t think of it–oh maybe a blanket stitch or a buttonhole stitch. I tried to get outside of just straight stitches lately.
JS: Feathers, all that sort of stuff?
MKD: I’ve tried to do feathers. I’m not very good. The quilts I’m working on right now, I’m going to do some floral motifs. We’ll see how that goes. [laughs.]
JS: What about thread?
MKD: Pretty much just cotton thread. Lately I’ve started to like something called King Tut [from Superior Threads.] thread, which I think maybe I just like it because I’m fascinated by Egypt, but it’s a nice cotton thread. There’s a million threads out there. Mostly I just stick with cotton.
JS: What about the size of the needle?
MKD: You know that’s interesting too. I’ve tried different ones lately. Some people tell me to use a jeans needle which has the bigger needle for the quilting. Lots of times I use something called a Sharp, a Microtex Sharp, which is just kind of, not so much a universal needle, but seems to work well for piecing and quilting. I’m not into the really fancy threadwork so I don’t go–
JS: So what kind of machine do you have?
MKD: I have a top of the line–used to be top of the line–it’s a couple of years old now [laughs.] They change so quickly, Viking, Husqvarna Viking. What is it? The Designer SE. [Joy agrees in background.] But, it’s still just a home machine and even for all the thousand of stitches, I pretty much use about ten. [laughs.]
JS: You do have a [inaudible.] keeping up your machine, however, keeping it oiled and in good condition and to a beginner that is the most important thing is to have a machine that was workable.
MKD: And I’ll tell you the other thing to always keep in mind, change the needle. I know people [Joy laughs in background.] who never change the needle. I change my needle at least after every project even more often than that. The funniest thing I ever heard was when a lady came in and said can’t figure out my machine’s not working and she hadn’t changed the needle in twenty years. [laughs.] I don’t understand that, but–
JS: Maybe she thought she didn’t have to?
MKD: I guess. [laughs.]
JS: [inaudible.] I guess if you had an everlasting needle that would be great, wouldn’t it?
MKD: I wouldn’t want a doctor working on me with the same needle [laughs.]
JS: Now, what about longarm quilting?
MKD: I think the people that do longarm nowadays do absolutely stunning, stunning, work. It’s art, it’s artistry. I’ve actually had my son try out some of the longarm machines lately and he’s actually fairly proficient on it, but I can’t afford one of those right now. [laughs.] Or I don’t have a home for it either.
JS: In what way has the quilting–[pauses.] I’m sorry. In what way has quilting affected your family life?
MKD: Well, it’s interesting because I have two sons and you wouldn’t necessarily think they would get too involved, but actually from a very early age they’ve been hanging out with me. Took them on their first Shop Hop [stopping at various quilt shops over a given period of time.] when they were very young. I had to bribe them with Game Boys [hand held video game machines.] but they came. They know what a fat quarter is. They know to stay out of the sewing room sometimes when Mommy’s quilting. [laughs.] But they do help me. Lots of times with basting my quilts because if it’s sort of large I need to have a couple of extra pair of hands so they know, they know how to baste a quilt. I have had them do design work for me. One of my sons actually designed one of my patterns, one of my quilting patterns, a quilting motif for me, because he’s a pretty good artist. And lately, as I mentioned, he’s been trying longarm machines out at the different quilt shows and I think he could be very good at longarm if he choose to do that. In fact he would like to have a machine to maybe get a little employment maybe?
JS: That would be nice.
MKD: Yeah, yeah.
JS: [clears throat.] In what way do you think quilts are important to American life?
MKD: You know, it’s funny I think they sort of bring families together in an odd way. I recently made a quilt for my mother-in-law–she just turned 90–and I had made one for her when she turned 80. I didn’t know I’d be making one for her when she turned 90. And, it was so much fun because of the Internet age, so here I sent her this quilt which was fun, but then her granddaughter took pictures of her opening up the box and showing the quilt and then she put that out on Facebook [an Internet social community.] so that I got to see the pictures so the whole family was involved in seeing this quilt and learning about the quilt, and I think that was a lot of fun. And there’s also family history. She also–my mother-in-law–sent me a box of blocks and some of them weren’t in such good shape and–but, she had eight that were in good shape and one that wasn’t so good, so with today’s reproduction fabric I was able to make one more block. It was a maple leaf block; so I could make her a quilt with the nine quilt blocks, but I ended up keeping it. I couldn’t give it away. So I made her another one. [laughs.]
JS: Well, now that we are almost at the end of our interview I would like to learn a little bit more about you personally. Now, do you collect or sell quilts professionally?
MKD: I collect the ones I make. I can’t afford some of the others that I’d like to have. [laughs.] I don’t really sell my quilts. If someone wants one generally, if they’re willing to pay for the–I’ll make it for them. The time involved nobody could afford anymore to pay that kind of money for a quilt.
JS: What about membership in a quilt group? Do you do that?
MKD: Oh, I belong to my guild, the Santa Clara Valley Quilt Association, and I think it was about two years ago helped them design their opportunity quilt, and I was–I don’t know what you call it–the featured quilter at their quilt show in 2009. So that was a lot of fun. And then I’ve joined a lot of different organizations, the Alliance for American Quilts, I recently joined. In fact, I just participated in one of their contests with the blocks my mother-in-law sent me. [Joy laughs in background.] And, let’s see, the National Quilting Association, I try to join them all because I figure, even if you don’t participate in everything, you’re contributing money to help them out and keep them going so I like to do that.
JS: But it also keeps you aware of what’s going on in the quilt world as well.
MKD: Uh huh. [agrees.]
JS: Do you teach quilting?
MKD: I sometimes teach at the quilt shop. I teach at the Granary, which is ironic because that’s where I took my first quilt class. I’ll teach there on occasion. Other than that, no, I’m pretty much a homebody for that.
JS: And tell us about your awards, because I’m impressed with that.
MKD: [laughs.] I’ve won a couple of awards and as I mentioned to you earlier it’s because I just keep trying. I figure you can’t win an award if you don’t enter the show. And I also figure you can’t have a show if you don’t enter a quilt. So, I’m actually–I feel very kind of strongly about that. About people, ‘Oh, I will never enter my quilt into anything because, you know, it will never win anything.’ But then, if you don’t do that nobody ever gets to see anybody’s quilts. So, I think you should always enter. I’ve won a couple of awards, one of the most fun awards I’ve ever won was a contest I entered a couple of years back for P&B; Textiles. They had a contest similar to the Moda challenge where you had to use their fabric to make a quilt top and the fabric was designed by Alex Anderson, and the first prize was you got to meet her and it was national contest and the only reason I did it was because I was very competitive with another gal in the shop and she said she was going to enter. [Joy laughs in background.] And, so I had to enter and then she didn’t. [laughs.] And, it took first prize–I won the grand prize. And it was very exciting. There was money involved and she [Alex Anderson.] came to our store and that was great for our store. [The Granary.] We had–you couldn’t even get in. I don’t know if you came that day but you couldn’t get through the door. So she gave a talk and I got to wear a tiara; it was a lot of fun [laughs.] But the best part about that was she, Alex Anderson, then asked me later on if I like to include a quilt in one of her books. So I designed a quilt for one of her books. It’s a Dresden plate design. And that was included in one of her books and since then we’ve been–and we’ve become friends and now I work for her on a part-time basis.
JS: Oh wonderful. I think that’s–
MKD: So, that was very fun.
JS: So, now you’re becoming such a professional.
JS: Do you have a room that you work in or and a design wall? And do you have all the accoutrements that go with creating?
MKD: So that’s a funny story too. When we were remodeling my, our house, that we’re in now, it was a very small house, it was 1200 square feet and we were trying to make it a little bit bigger and we had a very large living room designed and I kept looking at it going ‘Why? We never go in the living room.’ And at the very last minute I asked my husband if he couldn’t put up two more walls and make a room. There’s no closet, it’s just a room and he said ‘Sure, grumble, grumble.’ And I live in that room now. It’s my sewing room and he built me a wonderful sewing table with a built-in so the machine can go up and down. And, I don’t have a design wall. I have design floor, [laughs.] which is the foyer of my house. And, my children just know not to walk through the foyer and even my dog is trained to walk around anything on the floor in the foyer of my house.
JS: Do you think the wall versus the floor, do you think the floor versus the wall is better?
MKD: Absolutely not. [laughs.] I would love a wall. Maybe some day.
JS: I have a question about your quilts and patterns that may have been published. Do you have pictures of those or do you have books of those? What have you been published in?
MKD: Oh, I just realized that the quilt we’re been talking about has been published in the “100 Tips from Award-Winning Quilters” and I mentioned the Alex Anderson, “Neutral Essentials” book. I was also recently in the New Quilts from an Old Favorite: Burgoyne Surrounded contest and I was a finalist so they included my quilt in that and I actually got to go back to Paducah and see that quilt hang in the National Quilt Museum and that was a lot of fun. It was really fun because it was our 20th wedding anniversary and my husband went with me [Joy laughs in background.] So that was a lot of fun to see that. I actually have my own little pattern company called Threads on the Floor [www.threadsonthefloor.com] Yeah, because I always have threads on my floor along with my quilts on the floor. Where I just design a few patterns that I sell at The Granary in Sunnyvale and sometimes I teach those classes. And I’ve been in a couple of calendars and here and there.
JS: What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?
MKD: Time, money [laughs.] I don’t know if it’s the same for everybody, but I talk to a lot of quilters and if it’s true that you always have a project going you’ll never die, no quilters will ever die, because I always have six or seven projects going on. I can’t seem to–I’m not a ‘start to finish’ person. I’m a ‘Let’s work on this, oh that’s kind of boring, let’s go work on this.’ Or, I have to do something for the shop where I have to squeeze in a sample or do something else. So, I’m always looking for time and I’m not good at sewing at night so I’m usually up in the morning trying to get something done. Or I have my kids help me now, which has saved me time as well. So.
JS: Now, you say that we’re balancing time with money; how do you do that?
MKD: Well, I work in a quilt shop, that helps with the money. I think. [laughs.] I do have a couple of part time jobs, and mostly, truly to support my quilting habit. And I try to look for bargains and I try to use my stash. I’m sure all of us have nice large stashes, and so I try to use that up or I’ll trade with my friends. Or something like that.
JS: I would take it that your family is most supportive. Is friend-husband supportive also?
MKD: My husband is great. He has no problem with me buying anything if I use it and I mean that in every sense of the word. He’s the one who encouraged me to buy the good sewing machine because I didn’t want to spend that kind of money, but it’s been a blessing because now I finish my projects and so he’s just happy if I finish the project, and if I’m happy–and you know it keeps me motivated. It keeps me going.
JS: He sounds like a keeper to me.
MKD: He is.
JS: Mary Kay, is there anything you would like to add to this interview?
MKD: No, I think we’ve talked about just about everything.
JS: Well, I’d like to thank you, Mary Kay, for allowing me to interview you today as part of the Quilters’ Save Our Stories. Our interview concluded at 4:00 p.m. on April 26, 2010.
Mary Kay Davis, Interviewee
Joy Combs Spence, Interviewer
Mary Kay Davis, Transcriber
The National Society Daughters of the American Revolution QSOS
April 26, 2010
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