by Mary Emma Allen

Mary Emma Allen, author and quiltmaker, comes from several generations of quilters. She writes about quilting and teaches quilt history and quilting workshops, often with her daughter and granddaughter. Her book, The Magic of Patchwork,” tells of the history of quiltmaking, particularly about the role of children in this art. It also contains patterns for beginning quilters.
Mary Emma and her daughter, Beth Mastin, have been featured in Who’s Who in American Quilting.
This column, Secrets from the Trails End Quilters, will give you insight into quiltmaking and patchwork, along with the history of her family quilters who lived at Trails End Farm.
For more information about The Magic of Patchwork and her other books, visit her web site:
Photo by Caron Gonthier



When I think of my grandmother’s friend Susie, tying quilts around the dining table at Trails End comes to mind. I’d helped cut and stitch pieces for quilts Nanny made for us four grandchildren. Now I felt so grown up as she, Aunt Esther (or Auntie as we children called her) and Susie invited me, a mere eight-year old, to help tie the quilt spread out on the large table.

Susie also assisted my grandmother, Nanny, and Auntie at canning time, spring cleaning time, harvesting season, and other occasions. She was between Nanny and Auntie in age, as near as I recall. At family gatherings, Susie often attended, helping with the meal, joining the activities. She attended Christmas festivities. We gave her gifts and she made some for us. In later years, when Nanny was an invalid, Susie became her companion.

It was years before we children realized Susie was more than deeply tanned. One evening, we stayed overnight at her cozy home because all of Nanny’s guest rooms were filled with other relatives. Perhaps one of us children asked a question; perhaps Mother thought we’d see some family pictures; perhaps someone had made a remark.

Mother mentioned that Susie and her brother, who lived with her, were Negroes. Their parents had come to the community many years before; Susie and her brother had grown up there.

The fact that Susie was of a different race made no difference to us; she was still “our” Susie and a friend who was considered part of the family. So I never thought to ask her about her heritage and why her family came to settle in the small town where Trails End Farm was located.

I wonder now, if her parents or grandparents had any association with the Underground Railroad. Did quilts play a role in their escaping from the South? Since my prominent memory of Susie consisted of her chatting and laughing with Nanny and Auntie as we tied quilts, I wonder if they were part of her heritage.

When I research, reminisce, and write about the Trails End Quilters, Susie stands out as one of those ladies who contributed to my quilting and patchwork heritage.



Watching your daughter excel in quilting becomes exciting for a mom. When mine is invited to participate in quilting exhibits and teach classes, it’s enjoyable to realize our Trails End family tradition of quiltmaking will continue.

Recently Beth participated in an exhibit of the Fiber Arts Friends at their annual Art Quilt Show in Plymouth, NH. Their display fascinated viewers with quilts and hangings that take quilting beyond the traditional forms. They blend the new with the old and incorporate a variety of materials.

These ranged from king-sized quilts and large wall hangings to postcard and playing card size pieces. Fabrics made up the basic material, but they also used beads, netting, scarves, threads and non-traditional items to create work that reflected their various styles.

From this exhibit, their art will be displayed in a nearby gallery during the coming month.



I find so much enjoyment in sharing my quilting experiences and research with others, reading from my book, displaying my quilt collection and telling about my Trails End quilting heritage. One fun time consisted of participating as a guest speaker at a local historical society. They asked me to talk about quilting history and my book, The Magic of Patchwork.

Since I’m also a school teacher, I’ve found that “show and tell” will hold your audience’s attention rather than simply reading or talking…unless you can give a dramatic performance. So I brought along several of the quilts from my collection, along with quilt patches and pieces.

I particularly like to show the quilt I made with my grandmother when I was 8 years old. I recall sitting beside the woodstove in the kitchen hand sewing the pieces together. Nanny made one of these quilts for each of her four grandchildren and embroidered our initials on a corner.

Imagine my delight when my mom found this quilt with my initials and gave it to me when I was making quilts during the Bicentennial years. Showing this quilt often brings memories to mind for my audience about quilts in their heritage or collections.


Creating Hangings From Old Quilt Squares

When we found several old quilt squares midst my mother’s memorabilia after her death, my daughter and I wondered how to share them with my sister, her daughter and daughter-in-law…in other words, the other gals in the family. We weren’t sure who had made them. In all likelihood, it was one of the Trails End Quilters.

My mother grew up at Trails End Farm and her mother introduced me to quiltmaking when I was eight years old. I knew my mom hadn’t made the squares, so it must have been someone in her family since they were among other items she’d received after her mother’s death.

There weren’t many of these hand stitched quilt squares. If we made a quilt or hanging of them, only one person could enjoy it. My daughter suggested she add a border around each and put them in frames.

This is what we did. Now each female in the family has a bit of Trails End quilting in her home.

There are other ways we could have finished these bits of memorabilia, and they can always be taken from the frame for the owner to create something else. For instance, they could become the centerpiece of a hanging, by adding more borders and other patchwork around it. A quilter could find older fabrics and make other blocks using the same pattern, then use the original as the center block of the quilt.

Or she could make a pillow of the square, a tote bag, a piece of clothing. We preferred, to place the squares in something to hang on the wall so they’d have longer life.

What have you done with your family quilting and memorabilia so the handiwork of previous generations isn’t forgotten?



My mother had a favorite memory about quilting that she recalled until Alzheimer’s captured her mind. When she was six-years old, she received a letter from Cousin Virgilia, her father’s cousin.

It’s amazing to me that Mother kept this letter and treasured it in her latter years. As she held it and read it to me, she’d recall other stories about Cousin Virgilia and early quilting days.

I’ve also quoted from this letter in my book, The Magic of Patchwork: “My Mama said when I was six-years old I had pieced blocks enough for a quilt, and I can remember sitting at her side sewing.”

Mother said she sat beside her mother, grandmother, and older sister with sewing tasks when she was that same age. They made quilts, sewed clothes, and, of course, did endless patching for the family.

This is part of my Trails End Quilting heritage, for that’s where my mother grew up and the quilting skills and lore passed along to me originated…on their farm at the “end of the trail” in New York State.


Crazy Quilts & Horsehair Couches at Trails End

As I recall the quilting memories of my childhood, the striking Crazy Quilt draped over the horsehair couch in my grandmother’s parlor at Trails End Farm comes to mind. This was the first quilt I’d seen made of exotic silk, satin, and velveteen.

These irregular patches were sewn together with many different types of stitches that added to the appeal of the quilt. Some of the patches also had designs stitched within them with colorful thread.

I wish now I’d asked about this quilt, where it came from and whose clothing might have gone into the making. However, it was fun when I was allowed to drape this quilt around my shoulders if I were cold or cover me when I might rest upon the couch.

Resting upon a horsehair couch wasn’t the easiest to do, and sleeping on it was even more difficult. Even though the shiny black seat and back was attractive to look at, it scraped against our skin and itched.

I recall sleeping on it one night when our family arrived unexpectedly at Grandmother’s and she didn’t have enough beds. She had other guests we hadn’t known about. So I was
allowed to sleep on the couch and pull the crazy quilt over me.

The thrill soon turned to itching as the horsehair seemed to penetrate both the sheet under me and my pajamas.

I often wonder though what happened to that quilt. If someone has it now, I hope they treasure the Crazy Quilt from Trails End.


(These memories trace back to my Trails End quilting days.)

“Mom, there’s a yard sale down the road and they have printed feed sacks!” Beth called as we drove in the driveway when they lived in Ohio. “I got some this morning. But they had quite a few left.”

So I left Jim with unpacking the car while Beth and I dashed off to the yard sale. Yes, there were feed sacks there to add to our collection. These were of the era when I was a young girl making quilts with my grandmother.

Many of the fabrics Nanny and Auntie (the daughter who lived with my grandmother) used for their sewing projects and for quilts. My family bought their chicken and cattle feed in burlap and plain white sacks. So it was with fascination that I looked over the fabric from sacks Nanny and Auntie acquired.

I still have a drawstring skirt I made from one of these sacks for a 4-H project. The first item I made to model in our 4-H dress review. It has a red background with small white flowers over all.

You’ll often find these feed and flour sacks at yard sales and in antique shops. The prices generally are higher in the shops than the yard and garage sales. Sometimes if you purchase a box or batch of fabric at an auction or estate sale, you’ll find some of this old fabric.

Copyright © 2009, Mary Emma Allen


Mary Emma Allen's books, available by contacting the author/illustrator at or visiting her web site where you'll find further description and an order form: http//

1. Tales of Adventure & Discovery, a collection of children's stories previously appearing in magazines, written/illustrated by Mary Emma Allen; published by MEA Productions; $9.95 plus postage.

2. Tales of Adventure & Discovery Coloring Book, containing illustrations and excerpts from the anthology, by Mary Emma Allen, published by MEA Productions; $1.95 plus postage, or $1.00 when purchased with the anthology.

3. When We Become the Parent to Our Parents, the chronicle of her mother's journey through Alzheimer's, written/illustrated by Mary Emma Allen, MEA Productions; $9.95 plus postage.

4. Writing in Maine, New Hampshire & Vermont, a resource book for writers, publishers, librarians, and teachers, written by Mary Emma Allen, published by Writer's World Press. Regularly $16.95 plus postage, now $9.95 plus postage. (The publisher is celebrating their 10th anniversary and offering specials on their books.)

5. The Magic of Patchwork, the story of quiltmaking with directions for beginners' projects, written/illustrated by Mary Emma Allen, published by MEA Productions; $8.00 plus postage.

6. Manuals for Writers, written by Mary Emma Allen, $5.95 each plus postage:
Writing for Children
Travel Writing
Writing for Regional Markets
Writing for Publication
Nuts & Bolts for Beginners
Marketing Your Manuscript
Writing for the Weekly Newspaper
Writing Newspaper & Magazine Columns

7. Posters - autographed enlargements of the illustrations from Tales of Adventure & Discovery or the coloring book.
$1.00 for 8 1/2 x 11; $3.00 for 11 1/2 x 14, plus shipping.

Books in Progress:
Sarah Jane's Daring Deed, a picture/coloring book by Mary Emma Allen
Tips for Teaching Writing to Young Writers by Mary Emma Allen
Tales of Adventure & Discovery Writing Activity Book
Papa Goes to War, a middle reader Civil War novel based on Mary Emma Allen's ancestors' experiences.
Uncle Buffalo Bill (Mathewson, not Cody), the story of Mary Emma Allen's ancestor who operated trading posts on the Santa Fe Trail.

Workshops: Mary Emma teaches workshops for adult and young writers. She also presents children's programs in schools and libraries


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