What started as a Depression-era marketing campaign to boost the sales of batting resulted in more than 100 quilts and patterns that became so influential they were the subject of both a museum exhibit and a book.
The woman central to both projects is Linda Pumphrey, a quiltmaker, collector, author and senior account executive for Mountain Mist, the brand known for having included a new quilt pattern printed on the wrapper of every roll of batting sold for decades. Her history with the company and the quilts themselves is a long one.
“As national sales manager for Mountain Mist, part of my responsibilities was to take care of the Mountain Mist Historical Quilt Collection,” Pumphrey said. “I loved taking care of the quilts and sharing the stories behind them and their historical importance in quiltmaking in the 1930s and beyond. I also loved sharing the Mountain Mist quilts with quilters and seeing their responses to the timeless designs.”
Beginning in 1930 when quilting was undergoing a resurgence, through the Cold War era when quilting’s popularity declined, Stearns & Foster Company, which manufactured Mountain Mist batting, helped shape what was considered a modern aesthetic for the time through meticulous historical and market research. Most patterns were based on popular traditional patterns, often given a little twist to set them apart, then reviewed by a group of quilters selected by the company to give feedback before a sample quilt was made and the pattern published. This conscientious blend of the familiar with the innovative led to many of the quilts that lay atop American beds for decades.
The model quilts themselves were frequently displayed over the years, whether in stores, at county fairs, fashion shows or other quilt events, which only increased their popularity and recognition.
In 2012, Stearns & Foster donated the entire Mountain Mist quilt, pattern and ephemera collection to the International Quilt Study Center & Museum (IQSCM) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which currently has 24 of the quilts on display in the exhibit “Inside the Wrapper: The True Tales of the Mountain Mist Quilt Patterns,” guest curated by Pumphrey.
“The collection is particularly important to us, because it reflects the quiltmaking styles of the everyday quilter of that era,” said Carolyn Ducey, IQSCM curator of collections. “It’s also important because of the longevity of the company and how influential it was in popular quilt designs for so many years.”
Pumphrey is also the author of Mountain Mist Historical Quilts: 14 Mid-Century Quilts Made New (Fons & Porter, 2016).
“In every issue, Fons & Porter’s Love of Quilting magazine highlights a quilt from the IQSCM,” Pumphrey said. “In 2015, editor Jean Nolte decided to highlight a series of quilts from the Mountain Mist collection. In the discussion of which quilts to feature for the magazine series the concept of growing this project into a book was born. Portions of the royalties from the book will be given to the IQSCM to support their mission.”
It’s fair to say that Mountain Mist quilts never really went out of style, thanks in large part to an early decision by marketing executives to make the model quilts in solid colors, not popular prints that would be subject to trends and availability. The company continued to receive requests for certain patterns over the years, with floral applique quilts being the most popular according to Pumphrey. While the Hollywood and Wild Duck patterns were two of her personal favorites, she had a broader vision in mind when selecting patterns for the book. “I really wanted to highlight designs from the collection that were maybe not as well known but would relate to today’s quiltmakers, just as they did to the quilters of the 1930s, and interpret them in today’s fabric,” she said.
Fabric choices were not the only elements of the original quilts to be revised; the patterns required rewriting to suit a modern audience and their needs. In the first place, the vintage quilt patterns were designed to fit specific Mountain Mist batting sizes. “The patterns were also template-based and the math used to determine various geometric shapes was not the same that quilters of today use,” Pumphrey said.
Working on the exhibit and book held a certain amount of sentimental value for Pumphrey. “Recreating quilts for this book is a fun way for me to continue sharing the quilts,” she said. “Thanks to the International Quilt Study Gift of the Robert and Ardis James Foundation, the Mountain Mist quilts still exist as a collection. I feel honored to have been caretaker of the quilts and their history as an influential part of 20th-century quiltmaking.”