The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge


By TN Department  Of Tourist Development

Issue: December, 1986

If quilts could talk...what stories could they tell?

A two year search for the quilts of Tennessee has turned up more than 1,400 traditional quilts and just as many stories relating to them.

"Among the findings of our search were many exceptional quilts of high quality, many ordinary quilts of practical value, and a number of unorthodox quilts of unusual design," said Merikay Waldvogel of Knoxville, Tennessee, who with Bets Ramsey of Chattanooga conducted the project which took them to 25 cities in Tennessee over the two year period. At each location, on "Quilt Day" dozens of people brought quilts which had been made in Tennessee before 1930.

Quilt owners were interviewed for family history and information relevant to the quilt was recorded and documented. The stories naturally evolved as the information was gathered about the family members who made a particular quilt, and the purpose for which it was made or perhaps even used.

"On one quilt day, we saw a quilt which had been cut in the center and used as a poncho by Confederate soldiers," Waldvogel said. "Can you imagine a soldier walking around with a flowered poncho? After the war the quilt was repaired, and the hole was closed up with cloth that is less faded than the original, but you can see where the seamstress matched the other flowers."

Another quilt found is a "Bible Verses Quilt," made by Jemima Patton Clark of Christianna in 1922 to raise money for a missionary. Mrs. Clark asked donors for 25 cents and in exchange she embroidered their favorite Bible verses on the quilt blocks. Her grandson, William, now the quilt's owner, remembers making many trips to the store on his pony to buy red embroidery thread.

One quilt had tiny hand prints outlined several times in its fine stuffed quilting. The quilt was made by Mary Ann Trentham in Rhea County in 1881.

"Mrs. Trentham's one year old daughter, Nanny, was at the feet of the quilters trying to interrupt them," Waldvogel said. "To entertain her, the women drew around her hand on paper to create a pattern which was incorporated in the quilting. The outline of the tiny hand, with stuffing behind it, stands out clearly from the surface of the quilt. Forever after, it was known as 'Nanny's Quilt.' The family has photographs of Nanny as a young woman, and the quilt is treasured even more because of the story behind it."

An exhibition of 32 of the 1,425 quilts documented by the Waldvogel and Ramsey team will tour the state beginning in November. The quilts selected represent a range of styles from   bridal quilts to everyday scrap quilts   and they also reflect the differences found across the state from one region to the next. The quilts in the exhibition were chosen for their visual impact, the stories about them and whether their current condition would allow them to withstand their exhibition.

The two year search led to some interesting conclusions. In general, the compiled story of the quilts found across the state represents the history of Tennessee. The early quilting styles and patterns correlate to the immigration patterns of the early frontier, which was primarily from Pennsylvania and Virginia.

"Many quilts are evidence that Tennessee was not as isolated as some people might imagine," Waldvogel said. "All types of fabrics were available to many women who used patterns which show a similarity to those being done at about the same time in places like Williamsburg, even in the earliest years of the state."

In addition, regional differences were ascertained and trends in quilting design over the years were traced to certain areas.

One of the more recent quilts in the exhibition is a "Trip Around the World" pattern. It was made by Bernice Schultz Mackey, of Decherd, Tennessee. The story behind it is just one example of how quilts have an often times silent but rich history which reflects the lives of Tennessee women who are now represented only by the work of their hands.

As an eight year old in McMinn County, Tennessee, Tootsie, as she was called, began making doll clothes from scraps of her mother's sewing. Too short to sit and sew at their family's sewing machine, she would stand and push the treadle with one foot.

The scraps were from her mother's quilt bag, and when her mother complained about not having any scraps left for quilts, Tootsie replied that her dolls had to have something to wear.

At age 12 she was encouraged by her mother to begin a quilt. Tootsie used a one inch square   the size of a postage stamp   to put together 184 pieces in blocks. Twenty one blocks were completed by her growing hands and these were set together with alternating squares of plain blue.

Typical of quilts made on self sufficient farms of the time, the back was of muslin which had originally served as the feed sacks for the family's chickens. The cotton batting for the family's quilts was often grown on their farm, with the cotton hand carded. The two sides were then quilted in diagonal rows and squares.

Because the quilt was made during the Depression, Tootsie calls it her "Hard Times Quilt." She is the only quilt maker still living who is represented in the exhibit.

An audiovisual presentation will be shown in conjunction with each exhibit. An accompanying book entitled, The Quilts of Tennessee: Images of Domestic Life Prior to 1930, has been published by Rutledge Hill Press of Nashville. For more information about events in Tennessee, contact the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, Room T, Box 23170, Nashville, Tennessee 37202.