Mabel Murphy was born in 1907 in Callaway County, in the agricultural heartland of Missouri. She began school at age six in a one-room schoolhouse that served children in the area from first through eighth grades. When she was eight years old, she pieced her first quilt top — a Four Patch pattern, the standard design usually taught to children in those days. Following instructions from her mother, Murphy set the blocks, each four squares of freely selected variegated material, into a checkerboard pattern, stitching them together with nine stitches to the inch. When all the blocks of four had been joined into a single large square, Murphy's mother and a neighbor helped her to quilt the completed top.
From then on, Murphy made quilting an integral part of her daily life — through her years in school and later as homemaker, mother, and a public-spirited citizen of her community. She made more than 100 quilts, all in the same basic style. After deciding on the general idea of the quilt she wanted to make, she selected the design and the materials needed, and then started the process of piecing the quilt together. When that was completed, she usually called in her neighbors and friends to help with the lengthy job of quilting. Each finished quilt is a kind of map of the social relationships that created it, between the individual artist and the supporting family or community.
Murphy taught hundreds of women to quilt, and opened her home every Thursday and Friday mornings to quilting circles for many years. She never received any compensation for her services or advice, nor did she ever sell one of her completed quilts. She said she made them to give away to her children and grandchildren. Each received a quilt upon graduation from college. When the boys in the family turned 19, she gave each of them a Bow Tie quilt to signify their attainment of manhood. Each also received two matching quilts upon his or her wedding day.
Murphy's Thursday morning quilting group made numerous quilts as donations for community causes; some were used in fundraising auctions for the local hospital or colleges. Murphy's neighbors supported and encouraged her work. To show their appreciation, they organized a local exhibition, entitled "A Lifetime of Love," featuring 41 of her most cherished quilts. In explaining her motivations for spending so much of her time quilting, Murphy said, " I just don't like to sit and hold my hands."