Household Crafts and Tips: The Foxfire Americana Library - Foxfire Students (2011)
A QUILT IS SOMETHING HUMAN
The local Harvest Festival in the fall of 1969 provided ample proof that the interest in quilts has swelled. So teams of Foxfire editors began to gather the necessary facts. They attended quilting bees, copied patterns from quilts that had been hidden in trunks and attics for years, and, at the last minute, turned up the most elaborate Friendship Quilt any of us had ever seen (ILLUSTRATION 8).
Originally the plan was to find all those patterns that were native to this county. That soon proved to be impossible, for quilt patterns were like ballads—they moved constantly from community to community over surprisingly great distances. Media such as farmers’ journals, newspaper columns, and even quilt pattern companies spread them farther. Even more complicating is the fact that patterns which were carried from the East with the first settlers in these mountains have been around so long that many of the owners consider them Rabun Gap patterns, which of course they are not. Worse, we have at least one pattern in hand that is known by at least three different names, and no one even guesses at where it came from.
At last it became obvious that the only solution was to include a sizable sampling of patterns from quilts that had been made in Rabun county by the mothers of grandmothers alive here now. And that’s what we’ve done. Each of the twelve patterns drawn for this chapter by Foxfire’s Bill Roland has been known in this county for at least seventy-five years. We have not included some others that are equally authentic but are readily available in any of the numerous books on quilting patterns. These patterns include Wedding Ring, Double Wedding Ring, Attic Window, Monkey Wrench, Drunkard’s Path, Dutch Doll (or Little Dutch Boy, Little Dutch Girl, etc.), Gate Latch, Four Doves at the Well, Double T, Lonely Star, Trip around the Mountain, Rocky Road, Basket, Nine Diamonds, and Odd Fellows.
ILLUSTRATION 8 This Friendship Quilt held by Mary Garth and Frenda Wilborn is nearly a hundred years old and bears fifty-five names.
But why the dramatic revival of interest? One explanation might be the statement made recently by Mrs. Claude Darnell: “They’s lots of people that wants to go back to th’ old times.” That, perhaps, but more. The simple fact is that quilts were handmade by people for people. Every phase of their production was permeated by giving and sharing. From the trading of scraps and patterns and the actual production in “bees” to the giving away of the final finished work, quilting was an essentially human activity. There is something about a quilt that says people, friendship, community, family, home, and love.
Aside from the quilting bees themselves, many customs and beliefs grew up around them. They were passed around, shown off, and given away. Patterns were traded like bubble gum cards. Especially beautiful ones became widely known. For example, Mrs. Grover Bradley told us in a recent interview, “Aunt Bede Norton had a basket pattern—just as pretty a basket as you ever saw; handle and all!” Grandmothers made at least one for each of their grandchildren to keep, and then pass on (ILLUSTRATION 9). A belief grew up that, “If a young girl slept under a new quilt, she would dream of th’boy she was going to marry.” And especially fines ones were used to cover the bed on Sundays (“Sunday Quilts”) and when company came. But by all counts, the most attractive custom must be that of the Friendship Quilt, discussed in more detail later in this chapter.
Basically, the quilt itself was, and is, a pretty simple project. It consists usually of a bottom lining, a stuffing of cotton—or two to three pounds of home-grown wool—a top lining, and the top itself. But there the simplicity stops. The top was made of a number of separate squares joined either side to side, or separated from each other by cloth borders. Thus a quilt that measured sixty by eighty inches might take forty-eight 10-inch squares, sixteen 13-inch ones, or any of a number of other combinations. Each square was usually identical in pattern but distinctive in color. All the squares for one quilt might be made by the same person, or they might be made by a number of different individuals who later got together to produce the final work (ILLUSTRATION 10). Sizes varied according to the beds the quilts were to fit, or the requirements of the individuals for whom they were being made.
ILLUSTRATION 9 Algie Norton with a quilt she pieced for one of her grandchildren. She has made four quilts for each of her eight grandchildren, three for each of her great-grandchildren. (So far!)
ILLUSTRATION 10 A quilting bee on Betty’s Creek in Rabun Gap. The quilting frame is suspended from the ceiling. As each row is finished, it is rolled under to enable the ladies to get to the next one easily.
In addition, the patterns for the squares were as numerous as the quilts they embellished, as were the number of ways each pattern could be handled. With Poplar Leaf, for example, each leaf could be set so as to point in the same direction, or they could be set in groups of four to produce an elaborate four-square pattern. The same could be done with such patterns as Gentleman’s Bow. String quilts, on the other hand, were simply scraps of cloth pieced together any way they could be made to fit. Sometimes they were strips set together, horizontally, in squares. With the Friendship Pattern, the ends of each strip interlock with the sides of two others.
There was even an array of styles in the actual stitching. Tiny stitches (“fancy quilts”) made it fluff up more and were the most popular. Larger ones made the job go faster. And the stitches themselves could be employed to make independent designs. Several different stitches are illustrated in ILLUSTRATION 13.
Emma Jean Buchanan, one of Foxfire’s editors, was witness to the most popular way of putting a quilt together—the quilting bee. All the women who gathered at Maggie Vinson’s home had previously completed at least one Dutch Boy or Dutch Girl square. The squares had all been gathered up, and by the time the women arrived, they had been sewn together into the completed top. Mrs. Vinson had also set up the four-piece frame so that it rested on the backs of chairs, attached the bottom lining to it, and laid the cotton, top lining, and top over that. Everything was ready for the actual “quilting” to begin.
Emma Jean wrote down some of her reactions as she watched: “The women sit around the quilt laughing and joking as if it isn’t a job at all. They never seem to get tired or want to go home. They all seem so content. The gossip is flowing as if I weren’t even around.
“This is my first quilting, so I sit there in amusement not knowing what will happen next. As I watch them making the final stitches, I wonder, just why would these women spend their time quilting when it’s much cheaper to buy a blanket at the stores nearby? Might it be that they quilt just for the social enjoyment?”
When we asked Edith Darnell the same question, she said, “It helps bring people together where they’d have quiltin’. It just seems like lot’ a’pleasure. You’re quiltin’, you don’t know you’re quiltin’—a’talkin’ and a’quiltin’ too. And y’have lunch. I used t’enjoy goin’ t’th’ quiltin’s.”
The most captivating custom, as mentioned earlier, was that of the Friendship Quilt. This was a quilt much like the others—it could be any pattern—with the added feature of a number of names embroidered on the squares themselves. Often each lady who had a part in the quilt embroidered her own name in the square she had contributed. As Mrs. Tom Kelly told us recently, “The girls had a custom of making Friendship Quilts. One person would piece a quilt block, and she’d give it to another girl, and keep on till she had enough blocks to make a quilt, and then all those girls would get together and quilt that quilt. And the one that started it around got the quilt. That was a very common thing in my girlhood days. The name of everyone that pieced a square was supposed to be put on the quilt, and they valued them. It was a keepsake really.”
Such quilts were made by the ladies of the community whenever a young person from that community got married, when a neighbor lost his house by fire, for a newborn child in the neighborhood, or just for a keepsake. When a boy became a man, he sometimes received one too; Edith Darnell explained: “We made ’em along when th’boy’s about your age. You know, everyone sent out—their family’d send out—a square, and everybody’d piece one for it. Everywhere th’square went, everybody pieced one to go with it. When they got th’ quilt done, all that pieced th’square went and helped quilt it. Then they’d wrap that’n [the boy they had done the quilt for] up in th’quilt when they got it done.”
The quilt pictured at the beginning of this chapter is nearly one hundred years old. It was made of scraps gathered from friends and family, and it was pieced by one woman. After she had put the scraps together, she embroidered on each piece the name of the person from whom it had come. It bears fifty-five names. Not content with the names alone, however, she also “fancied” every single piece by completely surrounding it with embroidery (ILLUSTRATION 14). Apparently, she used every stitch known in this area, and made up some too. The result was the most elaborate piece of work any of us had ever seen. The fact that something that must have taken months could have come from an era when survival itself was difficult makes this quilt all the more astounding.
ILLUSTRATION 14 This detail from the Friendship Quilt pictured earlier shows one of the panels and the elaborate embroidery that surrounds it. The same kind of work was done around each piece in the quilt.
Fancy or plain, however, the fact remains that quilts seem to us symbolic of some of our finer human qualities. Perhaps this revival of interest is a hopeful sign for us all.