Mountain Mist Quilt Collection Tells Stories of American Quilt-Making

Aug. 5, 2016, 9 a.m. ·

Window displays like this one featured Mountain Mist batting and the quilts made from patterns. (Courtesy Photo)

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The popularity of one of our most traditional American hobbies—quilting—has waxed and waned during the last century. A new exhibit tells the story of one company that played a big role in our national quilting heritage.

Imagine you’re a homemaker in the 1930s. You want to make a gift for your son or daughter. So you head to the store. In the window you see a quilt on display, next to a big roll with red and blue tumbling-block wrapping. You’ve got it: you’ll make a quilt with Mountain Mist batting.

“A quilt is like a sandwich,” said Carolyn Ducey, curator of collections at the International Quilt Study Center and Museum at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “You have a top that's decorative, that you usually either piece or applique, and do a beautiful design, and then you have a very simple back. In between those you put your batting. Then your quilting stitches are actually the stitches that hold the batting in place.”

In 1929, the Ohio-based Stearns and Foster Company began marketing its Mountain Mist batting in several creative ways. One of their key strategies helped make quilting popular even in Depression-era America, said Ducey.

“The idea that you could make something at home that would really be functional for your family seemed to really appeal to women. And with Mountain Mist particularly, they gave you a free pattern if you bought their batting,” Ducey said.

Those free patterns printed on the wrapper helped spur a revival of quilt-making in the 1930s and 40s, and again in the 1970s, during the nation’s bicentennial. The company also sold patterns through mail order for 35 cents in the 1930s, because the patterns inside were a surprise.

“Inside the Wrapper: The True Tales of the Mountain Mist Quilt Patterns,” is now showing at the International Quilt Study Center & Museum. It features both quilts below along with many others.

Hollywood, maker unknown, made circa 1934.

Shadow Trail, maker unknown, possibly designed by Fritz Hooker, made circa 1935.

(Courtesy photos)

“You didn't know what pattern you'd get,” said Ducey. “I remember as a little girl going to buy batting and being really anxious to open it up and see what pattern you had inside.”

The Quilt Museum’s new exhibition, “Inside the Wrapper: The True Tales of the Mountain Mist Quilt Patterns,” dives into the history of the company and its influence on American quilt-making. Much of its success stemmed from the man—and women—behind the designs.

“The amazing thing about Mountain Mist was the work of Fritz Hooker, who was their marketing expert. Fritz was the one who came up with the idea of the patterns inside the batting,” Ducey said.

“When [Fritz Hooker] started the collection, they wanted to bring out antique or traditional patterns that were known at that time as well as original designs,” said Linda Pumphrey, guest curator of the exhibition. She started working for Mountain Mist in 1989.

Early on, Hooker worked with two sisters to design the patterns.

“Margaret did the graphic designing, she was a trained graphic designer, Ruth was a math teacher so she did all the layout and the math needed to put the quilts together, so they're super accurate,” said Pumphrey, which made them even more popular among quilt-makers.

Hooker’s design micromanagement is evident in letters to the sisters, said Pumphrey, “if he didn't like something, it didn't get in. If he didn't like the colors, it didn't get in.”

And those guidelines went all the way to the consumer: some pattern wrappers even included little fabric swatches in the recommended color scheme.

“Most of the quilts as you walk through the collection, you'll see are solid fabrics. And this was done on purpose so it didn't date the fabric and the quilt,” said Pumphrey.

Hooker encouraged stores to display quilts in their windows and host quilt demonstrations. The quilts on display in the museum were sent to stores around the country as examples.

“I have big shoes to fill. Because he really did a lot for quilt-making in the 30s and 40 and onward,” Pumphrey said. Today Pumphrey is senior account executive for Mountain Mist, in the same sales and marketing role Hooker had for decades.

Pumphrey has cared for the historical quilt collection for nearly 30 years. When ownership of the brand changed, she helped get the collection into the International Quilt Museum for preservation.

Mountain Mist quilt designers drew inspiration from popular culture and current events, and many of them have a distinctive, timeless feel, said Ducey. She pointed out one of her favorites called “Hollywood,” likely inspired by the golden age of 1930s Hollywood.

“What I love about it is it's got this really great graphic pattern,” Ducey said. “And then it's done in greys and orange and yellows, which is something that today would be considered quite modern. And this was made back in the late 1930s. So it's really way ahead of its time.”

The whole collection—which includes more than 150 quilts as well as the original pattern printing blocks, letters and more—is a significant acquisition for the museum, Ducey said.

“It really does reflect what women found interesting, what they found fashionable and what they liked. So it gives us a great picture of American quilt-making in a little capsule.”

A time capsule many people have a connection to, perhaps even in a quilt in their own family collection.