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Blessed are the piecemakers

  • This quilt was pieced and then machine quilted. It was a gift from Mae to her grandson James and his wife Melissa when they were married.
    This quilt was pieced and then machine quilted. It was a gift from Mae to her grandson James and his wife Melissa when they were married.
Published December 07. 2009 05:00PM

There is an old saying that goes something like this, "What I make with my hands, I give of my heart."

That phrase neatly describes 93-year-old Anna Mae Markley, who has been creating quilts for years, and generously bestowing them upon her family.

Mae, as everyone knows her, creates memories.

Piece by piece, stitch by stitch, the Lehighton woman has made dozens of quilts, and into each of them, she has stitched a rich history, that reaches back through several generations.

Mae began learning the fine art of hand-quilting when she was 12 years old. Her tiny, uniform stitches are a testament to toiling for many years at the quilting frame.

"My mother used to put quilts in," says Mae, "and I'd watch my mother and the neighbors quilt. Many years ago my father and the men would be out butchering, and the women would be up in the bedroom quilting."

She said everyone had their own style too. By the time they were finished, the quilts had a variety of stitches decorating them.

"In some places, the quilting would be only about one-quarter inch apart. There were usually five or six women. I was quite small," Mae remembers.

"That's when I got interested. My Aunt Esther, I used to go to her house and help her quilt sometimes."

While Mae would join the women at the quilting frame or her aunt to add her stitches, she said it wasn't until she was around 38 years old that she made a quilt of her own. Known as a "Wedding Ring" pattern for its interwoven circles, created of curved pieces of fabric, the quilt rests on a twin bed in Mae's home. That quilt is covered with a mauve whole-cloth quilt, which is one solid piece of fabric that has been quilted, either by hand or machine. The other twin bed in the room boasts an identical whole-cloth quilt, both made by Mae and intricately hand-quilted.

Mae enjoys the creativity that quilting allows her.

"I like the idea that you think of a pattern, then you put it all together and the way that it looks when you are finished with it," she says. "It's a very good pastime for when you are alone and don't have anything else to do."

Over the years, Mae has made at least 30 full-size quilts and countless wall-hangings and baby quilts. While it may take the average quilter months or even years to hand-quilt a project, Mae averages about three to four weeks per quilt.

When she pieces a quilt together, she will use a sewing machine.

While the art of quilting may be on the uprise, fewer women have the time or the inclination to tackle the tedious, time-consuming process of hand-quilting. But for Mae, it's her favorite part of the process.

"I think I like the quilting more than making a quilt," she admits.

Several of Mae's quilts feature needle-turned appliqué, which is all done by hand. It's a skill she says that she taught herself. Flowers and birds are the most popular appliquéd motifs seen on her quilts.

While she does a beautiful job of it, Mae says she is not too crazy about appliqué.

"Patch quilts," she says. "I like a pieced quilt."

Mae gets a lot of practice when she makes a new quilt as she will usually make not one, but three of each one for each of her children.

"If I make one, and the children like it, then I have to make three," says Mae. "I just make them in different colors."

A widow since 1981, she and her husband, Elliot, known to everyone as Sammy, have two sons Larry and George, and a daughter Jan Heydt, all of Lehighton. She has nine grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren, and five great-great grandchildren.

All of her grandchildren have at least one quilt, and in some cases more. Her granddaughter, Lori Markley Rudelitch, had six or seven quilts. When she died in 2003 from an illness at the age of 42, her family found a letter with her wishes that included being buried with the first quilt her Nana had made her.

"She was sick for a number of years, and was always cold," said Lori's mother, Mae's daughter-in-law Maureen. She would always be wrapped in that quilt to stay warm. It was her favorite."

Mae remembers the quilt was a flower garden pattern. She says her granddaughter was "a very sweet person."

Mae is a member of the Trinity Lutheran quilters group. They meet Monday mornings in a building next to the church in Lehighton. The group includes about five women, from age 60 on up to Mae, who is the oldest. The women utilize their hand-quilting skills, and then donate the money they charge to the church. She has been with the quilting group since around 1980.

"I didn't start when they first started," says Mae, "They've been quilting ever since I can remember."

Raising a family and working, first at a mill, Drumhellers on Iron Street in Lehighton, and then for her brother, who built Harleman's, selling soft ice cream there and then later, at the Big Chief in Packerton, Mae didn't have a lot of time for quilting. After she retired about 20 years ago, she started quilting more regularly.

"I didn't have much time for it. It's hard when you're working and taking care of your home and family."

Mae gets the ideas for her most of her own quilts from the ones that the church quilters are working on. If she sees a pattern she likes, she will lay paper over the quilt and sketch out the design, then take it back to her sewing room and stitch it up.

When she is preparing to hand-quilt a quilt, she will mark the design on the quilt top lightly with a pencil or taylor's chalk. She then layers the top with batting and backing and sets it into her quilting frame.

Using a quilting needle, which is shorter than a regular sewing needle, she makes between six and eight stitches to the inch. On close inspection, her tiny stitches are perfectly sized and spaced which is an enviable accomplishment for any quilter.

"The more you quilt, the more you learn different tricks," says Mae. "If you like doing it, that helps too."

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