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Quilt History Snippets - May 2023
By Kathleen L Moore
Posted: 2023-05-09T16:08:20Z

What:      Review of Uncoverings 1991, Volume 12 of the Research Papers of the American Quilt Study Group

Topic:       “Mary A. McElwain: Quilter and Quilt Businesswoman”

Author:     Pat L. Nickols


The author of this article is well known to most of us as a long-time member of AQSG and a contributor to Uncoverings on a number of topics. In this instance she provided detailed descriptions on Mary McElwain’s groundbreaking business of supplying quilting supplies to interested individuals not only in the U.S. but also overseas. It’s a well-researched and well-written article that is very informative and an interesting read.

It all started in 1912 in Walworth, Wisconsin, a small rural town in the southern part of the state not far from Chicago, Illinois. The shop was originally a jewelry and watch repair store with a small gift shop included. In addition to glassware and dishes, there were finished needlework projects made by Mary and local women as well as patterns and supplies for people to purchase to do their own projects. [p. 98] Mary also offered lessons for interested needleworkers. [p. 99]


The article provides family history and genealogy beginning with Mary’s early to mid-nineteenth century grandparents. This background is a good reference point for what life was like for Mary as she grew up and began to develop her ultimately very successful business.


Mary relied on the help of family members and local women, creating a Women’s Exchange that eventually employed sixty local women who “made a wide variety of afghans, aprons, pillows, and other items as well as quilts. They would cut, baste, or sew sample blocks of applique or pieced work, quilt and bind quilts.” [p. 100] Additionally, “work was also sent to quilters in Kentucky, an active area for needlework cottage industries.”[p. 102] This was all work that probably provided much needed extra income during the hard times of the 1930s.


When her husband William retired and closed the jewelry shop, Mary expanded and continued her business as the Mary A. McElwain Quilt Shop. William helped in the shipping department and with the bookkeeping. [p. 102] The shop was so successful that Mary was able to expand notwithstanding the Great Depression because, as Nichols notes, many of Mary’s customers “were wealthy patrons who seemed unaffected….”[p. 103]


The most interesting part of Nichols’ article is her description of how Mary McElwain and her daughter built their customer base by “staging exhibits for women’s groups and clubs in nearby towns” as well as in Florida and Washington, D.C. The first World War and the Great Depression called for cutting costs and she began hosting exhibits in her shop and inviting customers to come for her “quilts, quilt findings, and fine gifts.” She appeared in popular magazines and on Chicago radio station WLS. Her radio broadcasts promoted certain quilt history books by authors such as Marie Webster, Ruth Finley and Carlie Sexton for every library and she told “a picturesque history of the early pioneer days, quilts and the women who made them.”[p. 103] All of this drew busload of people from across the US and from other countries to her shop. Nichols notes that “the purchase of expensive giftware contributed to the financial success of the shop.”[p. 105]


McElwain was selected as one of the judges for the National Sears Century of Progress Quilt contest in 1933. She also authored the book, Romance of the Village Quilt, published in 1936. It is part history and part a catalog of quilts included in her inventory, some of which were her own designs. Information on specific designs and pricing is included in Nichols’ discussion.


There is so much more revealing and interesting information in this article, more than can be included here. It is well researched and reported and has an extensive list of end notes. I recommend it to you all.


If you do not have a copy of this, or any, edition of Uncoverings, check the publication list on the AQSG website to see if the particular volume is available…many still are. To access an online version of any issue of Uncoverings find the links at As always, you can contact me at