Bedcovers were the first true art form in America.
Books corroborate this claim for quilts, but they also tend to dwell on patterns used in various regions instead of the particular tastes and talents of the individual artists. Any quilting woman knows that she takes pride in being different from her neighbor. In country stores where quilts are being sold, women are often heard to exclaim how they would have done that Wild Goose Chase pattern, for example, with a simpler border or fancier stitches or less green. Neighbors may share patterns; they may exchange scraps of materials. But each quilt is an individual creation. Each says something about the maker’s life.
A quilt is two layers of cloth filled with cotton, polyester or wool, with the three layers stitched in a pattern that keeps the filling in place. In the past, sewing the layers together (quilting) was often a collective process, requiring that the participating women be friendly, of course, and most of all that their stitches be consistently tight and neat. The back of the quilt is usually one fabric. The “top” is the part that requires the most individual planning and artistic choice. Even at quilting bees, each top was the work of one woman alone.
Women began making quilts in this country as soon as they had enough sewing scraps. Pioneer women kept the family beds piled high with colorful quilts as they struggled to survive the winters in the wilderness of North America. “A woman made utility quilts as fast as she could and as well as she could so her family wouldn’t freeze, and she made them as beautiful as she could so her heart wouldn’t break. Of all the things she did day in and day out, the quilt was perhaps the only thing that would last longer and be remembered more gratefully than last summer’s pickled beets.” (Beth Gutcheon, New York Times Magazine, 7/20/75.)
It hasn’t been that long since nearly all women did some kind of sewing; depending upon their economic status, they made everything from long underwear to doilies. Black women on Southern plantations did exceptionally fine applique work (decorating or trimming one material by sewing on shapes from other cloths), a skill that originated in Dahomey, West Africa. Plantations had superb quilts made by slaves, while Southern farm women made their bedcovers out of whatever sewing scraps or feed bags they had. Whether they were appliqued velvet and satin or dyed sack patchwork, the quilts were both colorful and necessary.
Women often associated each quilt they made with an event: a wedding, birth, death, going-away. Names of old quilt patterns suggest their origins. Some are from the natural surroundings which have been a joy as well as a hardship to women isolated in the country: North Carolina Lily, Spider’s Web, Wild Goose Chase, Bear Paw, Maple Leaf. There are names about daily life (Log Cabin, Barn Raising), about dreams (Around the World), about events (Rocky Road to Kansas, Whig’s Defeat). Some are political statements, the kind women weren’t supposed to make not so long ago: Jackson’s Star, Underground Railroad, and one pattern made by some women during the Civil War was called Radical Rose. It featured a black center in each rose, an expression of sympathy for the slaves.
There were patterns with religious names: Tree Everlasting, Forbidden Fruit, Job’s Tears. Another favorite was the “crazy” quilt which could be made without any pattern, using all sizes and colors of scrap materials.
Album quilts are for remembrance (sometimes each block is a different story, a family history), and friendship quilts are often “signed” with flowing stitches. There are also death quilts.
One was made by a woman in Lewis County, Kentucky, in 1839. Elizabeth Roseberry Mitchell pieced a brown cotton quilt that had an intricate picket fence as a border around a cemetery in the center. Inside the cemetery, she stitched the shapes of coffins to mark gravesites. There was a path leading from the cemetery to a bottom row of little brown-cloth coffins, each with the name of a member of the family. Whenever one of them died, Elizabeth snipped the coffin and re-sewed it into its place in the cemetery.
The advent of an age of cheap blankets and insulated houses eliminated the necessity of quiltmaking for many women. But in rural areas, especially in the South, everyone’s mother or grandmother remembers how quilts could brighten a sparsely furnished bedroom. The connotations of hard work, self-sufficiency, patience, love and durability remain. Plus, quiltmaking is quiet work, peaceful; it requires more imagination than other household work.
In wooden houses in the country, some women still make quilts to keep their families warm. But women with “tight” houses make them, too. Some give them to family and friends. Some sell them. Some save them, wrapped in plastic, neatly stacked in closets. Maudie Gilbert and her sisters, Mary and Martha, live with their families up on Sandy Ridge, near Campton, Kentucky — mountainous country with icy winter winds. Maudie, Mary and Martha get together sometimes to do their quilting. Mostly they quilt on their own, though, because Maudie says they do so much talking when they get together that they don’t get much done. “You know how sisters are when they’ve always been close.”
Maudie was recounting the winters when she was young and could see the stars through the cracks in the roof, but was still warm under three or four quilts. Her mother made enough quilts for all the family beds, plus some for a woman up the ridge who was well enough off to have others make her quilts. She paid Maudie’s mother $2.50 for a double-size quilt, then cut it in half and used it on two beds! Of course, as Maudie says, “Two dollars and fifty cents would buy quite a bunch of groceries at that time. Now you could put $2.50 worth of groceries in your pocketbook, almost.”
Maudie began quilting when she was seven. Her aunt gave her little pieces of thread and pieces of material too small to be of much use, and Maudie sewed them together. They all quilted, her mother and aunts and two older sisters. When she got married, at 18, she started farming with her husband and keeping house; she had six children. “I’d quilt in the fall of the year,” she said. “After we got our other work done, then I would make our quilts that we used. Had to make two or three new ones every year, because usually there was a new kid to come along every year or two.”
Maudie says she’d “rather quilt than eat, almost.
“After the kids get gone to school, I sit right down and start to quilt, and usually it’s eleven or twelve o’clock before I even look up. Because, you know, I get so interested in it, just like you really get interested in working a puzzle or something you love, and want to see how it’s going to turn out; that’s how I am about my quilting.
It doesn’t seem possible, but it’s true.” It doesn’t seem so impossible, considering the tree quilts and eagle quilts she makes that are famous for their beauty. She and her sisters were picked as the best quilters in the area several years ago. The local co-op asked them to make a quilt for Pat Nixon when her husband was still President, the sisters took it to Washington, D. C., and presented it to her. That one was an eagle quilt.
Now her young son, Joey, helps around the house, washing dishes, sweeping floors, while Maudie quilts ten to twelve hours a day.
“You quilt, quilt, quilt and you sit right there in that same place all day, and it just takes you so long to make one. Of course, the money’s good and it’s good honest money, but you don’t make much. I do it because I love to quilt — and I need what money I do make.” She usually gets about $100 for her big quilts and $25 for crib size.
She studied her hands, bending her fingers in and out as if they were stiff. “But I’d make them if I didn’t get anything for them. If I sat right down with a piece of paper and a pencil and figured up all the price of everything that’s in a quilt, I guess I’d have to quit. But I want to keep doing it, til my eyes give out.”
She wants to make one special one for each of her children. Plus she needs more for her house, because it isn’t insulated. It still takes about four quilts on each bed to keep out the cold. But the fancy quilts are not made for daily use; she can’t afford to keep the eagle or tree quilts.
A woman whose weakened eyes have ended her quilting days lives about 100 miles east of Maudie, near Whitesburg, Kentucky. The mountains are even more rugged there, and houses balance on cliffs or nestle back in hollows. Mrs. Georgia Fairchild Taylor has always stayed close to her family. She quilted with her sisters, too. Her big old house has closets full of quilts she’s made, all light greens and bright yellows and blues and pinks — flower colors. She has always gardened and planted flowers in the spring and summer, and made her quilts in the winter. She won’t sell them. She only has one daughter. So she saves her quilts, with a special one for her only grandchild, “if he ever gets married.”
As a young girl, Georgia had to do most of the housework and cooking because her mother was ill for a long time. “There’ve been things I’d like to do, but I’ve always been a housekeeper and tended the garden, canned, put up stuff, and I got attached to that kind of work. I’m glad that I did, because it’s a pastime to do some kind of work, whether it’s in the garden, doing sewing or quilting, things like that.”
Though her house was cold before electricity, quilts aren’t as necessary now. But she’s proud of the ones she made and thinks “it was the best thing in the world for me to have been home so much,” taking care of her ailing parents and, later, a sick husband.
“Family’s the most important thing,” she said. “Wouldn’t you have done the same?” Passed from mother to daughter, and now to country stores and craft co-ops, quilts are more widely appreciated these days. But most women have been aware of the beauty of what they’ve done all along. In Madison County, North Carolina, a woman who has quilted to cover her beds and now sells her quilts at a crafts store talked about her early work.
“People back then didn’t have the money to buy materials to make fancy tops out of, or even to set it together with,” said Leona Rice. “My daddy worked for the Chesterfield Milling Company and over there, they’d bust these flour bags. Every bit of flour was in cloth sacks. So we’d get those flour bags and wash em and we’d strip our quilts together with em.” She says they’d even use some of the big sacks for quilt lining.
She remembers carding cotton out of an old mattress that belonged to her grandmother. “We took and tore that mattress up, and Grandmother showed me how to card, and we carded all that cotton, redone it over and put it in little rolls, and that’s what we used for my quilts when I was going to get married.”
Now she laughs about some of those old quilts, about how she looks at them and thinks, “Oh, Lordy, what stitches I made!” But she avers she’s as proud of the old ones as any she’d quilt today.*
Today people are buying quilts like Leona’s to hang on their walls. Connor Causey, a young woman in Hillsborough, North Carolina, who quilts and teaches quilting classes, thinks it’s great that people are hanging them. “I think they should be treated that way. I’m doing art and my medium just happens to be material. Though I’m doing a lot of traditional designs now because there are so many I want to try, someday I’d like to get into some more original designs, and even free-form quilting.”
Connor’s favorite quilts are the patchwork ones; she says the geometry of them is timeless. “You can go back to these patterns that are very old and see that the original designs really took a lot of figuring.” One old pattern which is especially complex interested Connor, and she asked her friend with a PhD in physics to separate the pattern into its parts. It took four or five hours. Connor asked, “Now, how could the originator, probably a woman with little or no formal education, figure it out?”
Connor learned to quilt from an older woman in Hillsborough. She usually quilts by herself now, and says that most of the other quilters she knows work alone, too. In the past it was much more of a social function than it is today. At quilting bees, the work would go faster, and the women who didn’t have telephones and didn’t live very close to each other would have a chance to visit. “People get together in many other ways now,” says Connor. She works on a frame in her home, and sometimes, when friends drop in to see her, they’ll sit and stitch a while with her.
She’ll never get tired of quilting, but Connor thinks she probably will get tired of selling them. It makes it “work” to do one to fill an order.
“Nobody quilts for the money. If you break down the hours, you could make more as a waitress.” But she has a two-year-old daughter, and quilting has turned out to be a good way to make money at home.
Another young woman, Susan Paterson in Barnardsville, North Carolina, took up quilting when she was pregnant with her first child. Now she has two daughters and quilts so much that her sales help support the family.
“I wanted to make a quilt for my first baby,” she said. “I asked a lady who runs a gas station down in Barnardsville how to make a quilt, got her directions and went home, made a quilt all wrong. It looked pretty good to me for all the mistakes, and the days I spent arranging and rearranging the pieces were so pleasant that I decided to make a full-size quilt.”
She was just as happy with her second quilt even though it was lumpy and didn’t last long because the thread wasn’t heavy enough. Her husband made a quilting frame and she’s had a quilt top on it ever since.
At first she made quilts for friends, then began going to some mountain fairs; now she sells through a store in Asheville and Chicago, and does a pretty good mail order business. Three years ago, she purchased a rubber stamp. Now, she has a price list. Her mother didn’t quilt, but had a big effect on Susan because “she had an eye for handwork.” Besides doing all the practical sewing, which she taught to her daughter, she also embroidered, crocheted and knitted beautifully. “Mother was very confident about being able to do any needlework and I think that’s why when I decided to quilt, I had no doubts about being able to do it.”
One turn deserves another, and Susan says she plans to instill that same confidence in her daughters, Emily and Becky. “I’ll make sure they can do a little hand sewing and use a sewing machine, and help them in any projects they undertake, but I won’t sit them down and teach them to quilt unless they ask me.”
The way quilting women tell it, a person has to want to quilt to do it well. There has to be an urge to create, and there must be the time and situation that will allow it.
If a woman intends to do all that handwork, it’s likely she’ll want her quilt to be beautiful, like someone’s oil painting. She’ll want it to be different from all others, even more so than her own barbecue sauce or apple pie recipe. Most quilts are unique, as are their makers, women like Maudie and Georgia and Leona and Connor and Susan. Quilts were bed coverings first, born of necessity, but the individual work and creativity has always gone beyond the “necessary.”
*The interview with Leona Rice was conducted by Laurel Horton, librarian for the Appalachian Room at Mars Hill College and folklore graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
/*-->*/ /*-->*/ Jennifer Miller grew up on the North Carolina coast and wrote about the state’s fishing industry in the Spring 1977 issue of Southern Exposure. (1982)
Jennifer Miller is an editor and writer and has worked with the Institute for Southern Studies for five years. (1980)