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Quilter Profile: Merry May

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MERRY.GIF (38588 bytes)Merry May's quilting forbears revealed themselves to her reluctantly, in a slow, agonizing sequence not unlike one of  her mystery quilts, for which she is known widely around the 'net. "I began experimenting back in the early 1970s while I was in college," she says. "I guess I was a product of the Bicentennial era, becoming interested in old-fashioned, hand-made things. At that time, I was just hand-stitching plain squares together.

"Not knowing of any history of quilts in my family at the time, I decided that if I was ever going to HAVE a quilt, I was going to have to make my own! About five years after I finished making my first quilt, I discovered that there was a baby quilt made by my father's great-great grandmother, in the late 19th century. I'm now the fortunate caretaker of it. Then, about ten years later, I was given a large Bow-Tie quilt (signed and dated 1904) which was made by my father's great grandmother (the first quiltmaker's daughter); and also two quilt tops made by HER daughter from around the 1930s. Our theory is that the tops were never completed because the woman had 13 children!

"It was a really nice feeling, discovering that I was continuing a tradition of quiltmaking which had been interrupted by a couple of non-quilting generations!" As for  her first quilting effort, "I finished piecing the top and donated it to a church as a raffle quilt. Someone else tied and finished the quilt."

It wasn't long, though, before she was making more quilts and began to develop her trademark scrappy style. While Merry's style is basically traditional, it's also unpredictable, departing in surprising ways from the expected. Her mystery quilts have, in part, given her the freedom to experiment.

"When most people who know me look at my quilts, they seem to see a 'style' which uses a lot of tans and traditional patterns. But there's another type of quilt I make, which is more playful in design and color. Often these will use bright, off-the-wall colors and/or fabrics which, when viewed up close, will reveal a bit of  humor. These are the quilts I enjoy making the most, although I'm never quite sure what to do with them once they're completed! I tend to make this type of quilt when I'm making samples for my mystery quilts, because they're 'just for fun.'"

Merry's ingenuity also finds expression in her abilities as an inventor. She is constantly looking for new ways to do things, particularly those having to do with quilting. Out of this came one of her major inventions, a method for mass-producing the tedious Flying Geese block through a product she calls "Gridded Geese." She describes the process like this:

ggeese.gif (42128 bytes)"I suppose you could say that I developed Gridded Geese out of a combination of desperation and a severe case of cabin fever during the winter of 1994. Early in January of that year, my husband had knee replacement surgery (no small thing!). With an 'impatient patient' to care for, I needed something to distract me from the intensity of the situation, and an excuse to walk away (but not TOO far away!) from time to time. So, I decided that there HAD to be another way to make Flying Geese units. At first, I attempted to use a paper grid system similar to Quilter's Ranch's 'Triangles on a Roll,' where you simply layer your two pieces of fabric  together, add the paper grid to the top, pin, stitch, and cut the units apart. Well, needless to say, this won't work with a Flying Geese unit, because of the seam in the center where the two smaller triangles overlap. After many attempts at drafting various grids, and slip-sliding my way back and forth to the local library to make copies (did I mention this was also a winter when we had one ice storm after another?), I finally found a system that worked, using strips of fabric which overlapped one another. I remember the euphoria I felt that day, triumphing over something that has boggled people for the past 200 years!"

Merry's thrill of creation soon gave way to other thoughts, as she pondered what to do with her new product. "My choices seemed to be cut-and-dry," she says. "Either give it away, start manufacturing and selling it myself, or try to sell it to someone else. After all of my efforts, I decided that giving it away was foolish; I didn't know where to start as far as trying to offer it to another business (how much should I ask for it? would they promote it and sell it, or let it die?); so I decided the next easiest thing was to do it all myself.

"One of the best things I invested in was a book called The  Inventor's Handbook, which helped me to think things through before jumping in with both feet and trying to print it up and peddle it.

"As far as a 'marketing plan' was concerned, I decided to attempt to create a demand for the product by running classified ads in some of the larger quilting magazines. My theory was that if enough people asked quilt shop owners for the product, they'd start looking for it and asking distributors for it. Well, four years later, my plan is finally working!!"

Asked about other ideas, Merry replies "I've toyed with a couple of other options for using the grid, which I won't get into just now. My 'R & D' Department hasn't quite had the funding to follow through on it. (As an aside, *I* am the R & D Department, the Production Department, Sales Department, Customer Service Department, Shipping Department, and Complaint Department. My 'staff' which I refer to in the intro letters of my catalogs consists of my daughter, and my two dogs!)"

Aside from Gridded Geese, which are distributed to quilt shops nationwide, Merry is known for her mystery quilts, which appear regularly at Planet Patchwork and the World Wide Quilting Page. Under the names of "Merry Mayhem" and "Jessica Fourpatch," Merry has been amusing and addicting quilters worldwide with her well-crafted mysteries for a number of years. Asked how she got into this decidedly specialized field, she says:

"I wrote my first mystery quilt instructions in 1992 after trying one of Judy Hopkins' mystery quilts. It was well written, and lots of fun. I wanted to share thespl4p.gif (46970 bytes) experience with people in my local quilting group, more economically and without violating copyright laws. So, the solution was to write my own series. I had been teaching classes for several years, so I already knew how accurate the instructions needed to be. All I needed at that point was a catchy name; so that was the beginning of Merry Mayhem.

"Writing mystery quilt instructions is not very much different from writing regular pattern instructions. The main point, though, is to try to hide the pattern, or at least the final layout, from people until the end of the instructions. Because of this, sometimes I'll mix up the steps which I would normally take if I were making the project on my own. In other words, I try to dazzle my 'detectives' with my footwork!

"One of the more important parts about writing one of these series is to be totally accurate, while providing clear, concise instructions and good diagrams. And the most important 'rule' is to ALWAYS check your pattern before it's printed or distributed to anyone else. Many times I'll ask one or two people in my local guild to test the pattern by making their own sample. I've also asked an on-line friend who goes by the name of 'Detective Kim,' to test patterns for me."

Merry sells her Gridded Geese and mystery quilts, along with a number of other unusual products, through her mail order catalogue for Schoolhouse Enterprises. Schoolhouse also has an online catalogue at


Asked about running a business, especially one which uses the internet, Merry says: "Years ago, before I was seriously into quiltmaking, I would make things to sell in craft shows and home boutiques. In order to keep the tax people from knocking at my door, I thought it would be a pretty good idea to take the legitimate route, and get myself a sales tax number. The street I live on is Schoolhouse Lane, so it's sort of a no-brainer to figure out how the name came about. The only thing I wish I'd done differently was to come up with a more descriptive name. I'm constantly getting calls on my toll-free number from people looking for school supplies and day care centers.

"Getting on the internet was one of the best things I ever did for my business. Of course, you need to do more than just be on the internet. One of the key elements in being successful on the internet is to become connected with one or more web sites which attract loads of traffic. The traffic will ultimately filter its way to your site. Once they're there, though, you need to give people a reason to hang around! I try to offer a variety of interesting things that appeal to quiltmakers (and friends of quiltmakers) which they wouldn't always be able to find in the general quiltmaking world.

"One more key piece of advice is to reply to internet requests for information right away... don't let it all sit around for a week before you get around to it. Time is of the essence on the internet, which is why we're all on it!"

A resident of southern New Jersey, Merry also teaches around the area in local quilt shops. She got into teaching in the same serendipitous way as she did her other  enterprises. "I sort of fell into teaching by accident back in 1988. I had taken an 'Advanced Quilting' class in adult ed in 1984 (I skipped the basic course!), and made twin quilts for each of my two children. I guess the teacher must have remembered me, because when she was ready to 'retire' from teaching quiltmaking, she called me to ask if I'd be interested in taking over. I was a bit flabbergasted, because I didn't really know all that much myself. When I asked her, 'But what if I tell them to do something wrong?' she replied, 'How are beginning quilters going to know?' So, with much nervousness I jumped right in with both feet, busily learning more as the class progressed. At first I also made a different project each time I offered the class, which got to be a bit stressful after awhile! After several years, I took a hiatus for a couple of years from teaching Basic Quiltmaking. A couple of years ago, though, I came up with a new project which is working extremely well, so I'm back at it again.

"In late 1989 I was asked to speak to a local chapter of the Questers (an international group which is interested in antiques) about quilt history. So, once again I gave myself  a crash course in quilt history, and used examples I had collected for the past several years from attending auctions with my husband. Fortunately, Barbara Brackman's 'Clues in the Calico' came out around that time. It's such a wonderful book; I was so excited that at last someone could answer some of my questions about dating quilts, and provide a foundation for studying quilt history. Since that time, I've gained much more knowledge through experience, plus reading many of the papers which have been presented (and published) through the American Quilt Study Group. I was recently honored by being asked to present my quilt history lecture at a community college in the northern end of my state (NJ) in conjunction with their Women's History Month and National Quilting Day festivities."

As if Merry weren't busy enough, she is actively involved in quilting activities in her area. "I joined my local guild during its charter year in 1985, and have been a member ever since; served in various and sundry official positions, and am currently the co-chairman of the Program Committee. I joined the Tri-State Quiltmaking Teachers in 1990 (I felt I needed some guidance in order to become a decent, professional quiltmaking teacher), and served as Treasurer/Vice President and then President. I'm also one of the founding members of the State Quilt Guild of New Jersey, and am currently their Treasurer and Newsletter Editor. I'm also coordinating our efforts to make our first State Quilt Guild raffle quilt, even though we haven't even applied for our state raffle license yet. My theory is: when you're working with a state bureaucracy, there's no such thing as a rush job!"

With all of her knowledge, creativity, and organizational abilities, it seems natural that Merry might try her hand at being the author of a book. When asked if she has considered it, she says: "Well, yes, but I've also always talked myself out of it. One reason (and it's admittedly a weak one) is that I'm not a follower of the crowd. In other words, when everyone else was raving over designer wear and paying top dollar for it, I looked at them like they had two heads ("What is WRONG with you??? I can buy FOUR shirts for the same price as one of those!"). So, anyway, when EVERYONE began writing quilt books, I decided I didn't want to be in there scrambling my way through all of that, right along with everyone else. Besides, if there are SO many quilt books out there, the chances are not very good for turning one of them into a best-seller.

"So, I guess what I'm saying is that IF I'm going to write a book, I'd prefer to make a serious effort at it and do it well, rather than just being able to say 'I'm an  author.'

"Or maybe I'm just afraid to bomb out."

While bombing out is not a very likely outcome, for now Merry has plenty of other things to absorb her energies and interests. She is working on a new mystery quilt for Planet Patchwork (due to begin in November), is managing her growing business, and is expecting her first grandchild in a few weeks. Best of all, she continues to devote her considerable energies and imagination to her own sprightly art, and to making quilting fun for the rest of us!



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