By Tasha Whitton

11/24/99

Quilters

Growing up in the Deep South, winter was always an interesting season. There was no fall to mark that beginning of the cooler weather with the dazzling color of changing leaves--usually not even any cool weather to announce the arrival of colder weather. Most of the trees in New Orleans remained covered with Spanish Moss right into the new year and while there were the occasional chilly days, made colder by the high humidity, cold was loosely translated as anything below fifty degrees. In our house, however, winter was clearly marked by the emergence of my mother's collection of quilts. We did usually keep at least one quilt on the beds all year round as a bedspread but in the winter we bundled them all down from the attic and placed them strategically around the house. The backs of couches were the perfect spot for an Around the World quilt to curl up with on a rainy January day, and the foot of each bed contained a quilt neatly folded in fourths.

In my family, unlike many other families in the South, these quilts were not always made by relatives. They were certainly all handmade, but the women in my immediate past had not been known for their handiwork. My mother doesn't sew at all. She did do a couple of samplers when she was in the Girl's Auxiliary at the Second Baptist Church in Greenville, Kentucky, and she can handle buttons and socks and hems-- but that was about it. Both of my grandmothers worked back when it wasn't really the thing to do. My mother's mother worked to keep busy. Her husband, my grandfather, had gone to electronic school in Chicago and then returned home to Greenville to open a shop. He sold and repaired televisions and radios and eventually branched into antennas. My grandmother, in a constant effort to make a little more money, was always opening small side businesses in the shop. She ran an ice cream counter for awhile and a candy shop. She even sold doughnuts, getting up before 5am to heat the oil and start cooking. Most of these side businesses didn't last long, but they kept her busy. She loved quilts but was never much of a quilter herself. My father's mother was forced to work, mostly because her husbands kept dying on her. She was a nurse and raised four children in between three husbands. She never had time to think about staying home or looking after the kids because the men couldn't be counted on.

So, our quilts didn't tell the story of our family heritage, but they were always pretty and I knew that someone in another family had spent a lot of time on them. One of my favorites was a twin size Sunbonnet Sue quilt that I used to get to keep on my bed when I was younger. The background was white and each block was outlined in pink. The Sunbonnet Sue's were each a different color but their bonnets always matched their dresses, and usually the bonnets were a solid color and the dresses were patterned. I also remember a particularly lovely Flower Garden pattern full of bright reds and pinks. It looked so festive in the gray winter months.

As I got older, I learned more about quilting and the history that often went into the patterns that were familiar to me as a child. When I was in high school, my family moved back to Paducah, Kentucky, home of the yearly national quilters convention, to be closer to family, and in my senior year I participated in a production of the musical "Quilters" by Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek, based on a book of oral history collected in the 1970s. The book, The Quilters: Woman and Domestic Art, was put together by Patricia Cooper and Norma Bradley Buferd from interviews that they collected from women who quilted in New Mexico and Texas. The text is interspersed with pictures of the quilts and the women, and portions of the dialogue were taken directly from the conversation of groups of women as they quilted.

In the musical, Damashek and Newman have woven the various narratives into a patterned story of life on the prairie during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The dialogue provided is often drawn verbatim from the interviews conducted by Cooper and Bradley. The women of the musical play various roles with the main action centering around a mother's attempt at the end of her life to put together a quilt with the help of her daughters that will represent their lives and that of their ancestors. From this beginning, the narrative spins its way backwards through a number of the difficult issues that pioneer women had to face--the burden of numerous childbirths, living underground in a dugout, the ravages of prairie fire, and the general uncertainty of life. These tenacious women not only found hope amidst hardship, but captured their emotions in the vivid patterns of the quilts that were needed to keep their families warm. Naturally, there were happy times as well as sad. Quilting bees were a popular venue for sharing news and discussing courting, but it was in the low points when loved ones passed away and grief nearly claimed their lives that the women again and again turned to the needle to find away back into society.

One of the things that I find so fascinating about quilting and the quilts that remain a piece of American history, is their dual function. Obviously, the primary function of this handiwork was utilitarian. The long, hard winters required the women of the family to provide as much cover for the family as possible, but the intricate designs were unnecessary. It was in the patterns that the pioneer women truly invested themselves. In those bits of fabric pieced together lie their thoughts and dream, their hopes and joys, and their numerous sorrows. In times of great loss, it was their ability to reach out and grasp the needle and thread that was the first step to reentering society. The community function of quilt-making is also fascinating. Women often gathered to put together quilts, and regardless of talent, all were welcome to attend (even though particularly bad stitches might have been taken out when everyone went home). The quilting groups were a support system and an open forum from women to express their grief and triumph--a place to find comfort and explore common experience.

I'm not sure if I can think of a comparable art form in the society of the late twentieth century, but I am certainly glad that these artifacts have been preserved along with the stories of the artists.

Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek. Quilters. New York: Dramatists Play Service, Inc., 1986.

Patricia Cooper and Norma Bradley Buferd. The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art: An Oral History. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1978.

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