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Image courtesy of Evelyn Coltman
Around the world
This quilt in the Trip Around the World pattern was made by Speedwell, N.C., resident Martha Sitton Rigdon. The wife of a Confederate soldier, Rigdon was about 27 when she created the quilt.
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Paul Bonesteel photo
In 1971, her family moved to Western North Carolina and Barbara Bonesteel began teaching sewing at Blue Ridge Community College. She was making quilted evening bags, and students suggested she teach a class in quilting. To demonstrate the different kinds of quilts, she made quilts that had blocks of each kind (applique, crazy, patch, for instance), expanding her repertoire in the process. In demand because of her teaching, she traveled widely in the U.S. and Europe, which exposed her to new ideas in quilt-making and nudged her into the modern quilt movement. Her work helped her land a TV show, “Lap Quilting with Georgia Bonesteel,” in 1979. “Whether it’s for family or to win a prize, quilts have stories,” Bonesteel said.
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Courtesy of the Mountain Heritage Center
Cubes of Zirconia
Tempe Jane Burrell lived in Zirconia, N.C., with her husband William Alfred Russell from 1927 until William Alfred’s death in 1956. This quilt, along with other family heirlooms, was donated by the couple’s granddaughter, a Western Carolina University graduate, who was inspired by a visit to the Mountain Heritage Center in 1988.
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In the modern vernacular
The Shady Ladies quilting group is one group that’s putting a modern spin on the art. Each year the group hosts a show at Lake Logan, located near Canton, N.C., and exhibits works made over the course of the year.
Forty years ago, when Evelyn Coltman’s grandmother died, the question in the family became—what happens to the quilt?
Coltman’s mother and her three siblings were having an easy time dividing up the rest of the Rose Powell Rigdon estate. And they didn’t want to squabble over the exquisite quilt that Rigdon’s mother, Martha Sitton Rigdon, pieced together sometime around 1870 in her home in Speedwell in Jackson County, N.C.
Martha Sitton Rigdon, the wife of a Confederate soldier who walked home from Appomattox after Gen. Lee surrendered, was about 27 when she sat down to create a “Trip Around the World” quilt, so named for the concentric shapes that form its particular pattern. Rigdon, who had several children, hand-stitched it from small bits of plaids, prints and solids.
“Hundreds of one-inch hexagons,” Coltman, her great-granddaughter, said at her home in Bethel. “It must have taken hundreds of hours. Very tiny stitches.”
The quilt was so beautiful that Coltman’s grandmother, having inherited it, kept it wrapped in a pillowcase and stored in a closet, away from the rambunctious grandchildren and out of the light that streamed into her Bethel home. Coltman had heard the family talk about it, often in the J.B. Rigdon General Store that her grandmother and grandfather ran in town. Coltman even saw the quilt a time or two.
But over the years it receded to the back of her mind, not reappearing until her grandmother died and the estate was being settled. “When she passed away, it was the only thing my mother and her family couldn’t agree to divide up,” Coltman said. “Everybody just sat there, and John, mother’s oldest brother, came up with idea of donating it,” she said. “Everybody agreed that it was a good option.”
Today the Martha Sitton Rigdon quilt is at the Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C. It’s “a showstopper,” said Pam Meister, the center’s curator. “Our collections manager did a mathematical calculation and figured out there must be 5,800 patches in it. It would take years to make. All those tiny stitches, done by hand. This particular art form is a particularly friendly one. You can touch it. It feels really good.
“Quilts really are objects that are usually given with love and used with love. People attach sentiments to them.”
And each one, it seems, comes with a story.
Layered in history
Quilting goes back at least to ancient Egypt and China. Among its first recorded appearances in European history, during the Crusades, was as a layer of clothing that soldiers wore under their heavy, uncomfortable armor. In 18th century England, women loved the look of quilted petticoats. Men then were enamored of quilted waistcoats. Immigrants brought the homespun technology across the Atlantic when they landed in the New World, but in the hardscrabble times of creating a country, money was tight and quilts were rough. Born of necessity, they were strictly utilitarian, created by women to keep their families warm, made from clothing and other fabric items that had outlived their intended purposes. Used as batten material if too worn out for the top or bottom layers, these rags got new life (if little aesthetic appreciation) as bedspreads and improvised door coverings that kept out the cold. Patched and repatched, they were used to death—none are known to have survived the earliest days of America.
Manufacturing made fabric less expensive. Freed of the chores of spinning yarn, women had more time to put toward embellishing their quilts, and quilting as an art form began. Many of the earliest surviving American quilts were created in the mid 1700s to mid 1800s, many elaborately done and carefully passed from generation to generation. Mechanization during the Industrial Age made much of life easier for many homemakers, freeing up time that many put into creating beautiful quilts they gave to their children as they set off on their own new lives.
During World War I, the American government requisitioned wool for soldiers’ blankets and encouraged women to make quilts for their families. Far fewer were made during the Great Depression when money for fabric was short. Though there was a slight uptick in interest during World War II, quilting dropped off considerably in the 1950s and 1960s, when a revved up economy produced goods in astounding numbers that made home items like blankets affordable for much of America. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the generation whose back-to-the-land interests spurred creation of the “Whole Earth Catalogue” sparked the modern quilt movement, one that emphasizes art as much as utility.
The word “quilt” comes from the Latin word meaning “stuffed sack.” A quilt has three layers. The top part is usually the decorative one. The middle one, the batten, gives a quilt its weight and warmth. Both layers are stitched into a bottom one, often a whole piece of cloth that is unadorned except for its print. Quilts are made in many styles. Patchwork, or pieced, quilts like the Martha Sitton Rigdon quilt are literally made of patches—bits of fabric often stitched into blocks of elaborate patterns and designs. Appliqué quilts are made from bits of fabric in shapes like flowers that are stitched onto a background. Art quilts are expressive quilts that are more for looking at than keeping warm.
Quilts have been such a significant part of Western North Carolina heritage that the Alliance for American Quilts is based in Asheville, one of the nation’s preeminent centers of American craft. The alliance, a national nonprofit organization, documents, preserves and shares American quilt culture by collecting stories about quilts and their makers, both historic and contemporary. One of its projects, Quilters’ S.O.S.—Save Our Stories, is an oral history project to collect stories from quilt-makers in the United States and elsewhere. Interviews collected are archived at the Library of Congress. The alliance’s Quilt Treasures project documents the lives, work and influence of leaders of the American quilt revival of the 1960s and 1970s. Among the 50,000 images of quilts in the alliance’s Quilt Index (quiltindex.org) is the Martha Sitton Rigdon quilt.
In Waynesville, the Museum of North Carolina Handicraft at the historic Shelton House has several quilts, including one made in 1855 by Elizabeth Jane Little Goelet Rogers. The great-granddaughter of Col. Edward Buncombe (the Revolutionary War hero for whom Buncombe County is named), Rogers was twelve when she made the quilt at Buncombe Hall, Col. Buncombe’s estate in what is now Washington County in eastern North Carolina. The quilts that women made in WNC typically were not elaborate, especially compared to those made on plantations in Virginia, said Meister, the Mountain Heritage Center curator. “They tended to be fairly utilitarian, made a lot of times from flour sacks and scraps of worn-out clothes,” she said. If a family had some money or something to barter, the quilts might have been made from store-bought fabric.
“Something that was brought home to us when we were hanging quilts for an exhibit this summer, was that even with the most humble quilts from the most homespun, worn-out materials, the quilters took the time to make them beautiful and to put something of themselves in there,” Meister said. The exhibit Meister referred to was the North Carolina Quilt Symposium, a migratory confab of quilts and quilters that WCU hosted over the summer. Expecting a knowledgeable crowd, the curators in making their selections gave extra weight to quilts that came with stories.
“There was one quilt, one of my favorites, done in a brick pattern—very rectangular, put together like a brick wall,” Meister said. “This quilt was made of samples of men’s suiting materials, mostly gray, brownish and black wool. You’d think ‘boring.’ But on top of this very plain, monochromatic quilt, the quilter and her friends put brightly colored embroidery, this explosion of flowers, and wrote their names with it. It’s the most wonderful thing. I call it the ‘girls gone wild’ quilt.”
One type of quilt popular in the mountains in the early 20th century was the Album quilt. Each person created a square and, when they got together to assemble them, they embroidered their names on the quilt and gave it to the recipient as a gift.
The nature of the gifting created the names of other kinds of quilts. In the late 1920s and early ’30s, the federal government evicted homesteaders and others from their land to create the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Negotiations between the government and the pastor of the Tow String Baptist Church in Smokemont saved the church from the destruction that claimed other churches and buildings in the park. In appreciation, the congregation made their pastor a Friendship quilt. When he passed away, his wife decided the quilt should remain with the congregation, so she gave it to a member, whose daughter gave it to the Mountain Heritage Center. The quilt is now part of the center’s permanent collection.
“I never fail to be touched by people who call us and offer us their family treasures,” Meister said. “We had a donation recently of a pre-Civil War woven coverlet. The donator said it had been passed down for seven generations of his family. I just blurted out, ‘Why do you want to give it to us?’ He said, ‘It’s old, it’s beautiful; I’m not going to put it on my bed, and I wanted to share it with other people.’ He then went on to tell us the story of Mary Ann Penland Rice, who made it between 1858 to 1859 out of wool that she carded and wove herself. Her husband served and was killed in the Civil War. He had a little portrait of her. It’s wonderful when you hear the stories that go with them.”
Moving toward modern
“Whether it’s for family or to win a prize, quilts have stories,” said Georgia Bonesteel, a Flat Rock resident who helped pioneer the American modern quilt movement. People make quilts for the granddaughter going off to college and the grandsons their own children have had. The reasons why the quilts were made attach themselves to the fabric like the stitches that hold them together. “These stories are part of the family,” Bonesteel said. “They warm the heart. They’re like an extension of grandma’s hands.”
Older quilts often contain the seeds of cotton from which the batten was made, dating them to a time when women carded the cotton themselves. Bonesteel loves finding the seeds, because they bring her back to the time in which the quilt was made. She especially loves finding the name of the quilt’s maker stitched into or drawn upon the quilt, because it indicates to her the pride that the maker had in her creation. “Think of the time of our grandmothers, before electric blankets and duvets,” Bonesteel said. “Cotton was plentiful back then, so cotton was used in quilts made out of necessity but also for weddings and special events. Widows made a ‘widow quilt’ out of fabric from the suitings of their men. Quilting became an emotional outlet for women.”
A clothing and textile major at Northwestern University, Bonesteel was born in Sioux City, Iowa. Her father’s job as a government attorney meant the family moved around a lot before the family settled in a home on the north side of Chicago. Her mother made her daughter’s clothes, not because she liked to sew (she didn’t really care for it, her daughter found out years later) but because times were hard and most women needed to make their family’s clothes.
Bonesteel can’t remember a time when she herself wasn’t sewing. Married, she and her own family moved to New Orleans, where she not only sewed her daughter’s clothes but also made clothes in a department store from fabrics the store sold. On her own, Bonesteel started using silk fabric for men’s ties to create quilted evening bags. “All of a sudden I realized that what I was doing was quilting,” she said.
In 1971, her family moved to Western North Carolina and Bonesteel began teaching sewing at Blue Ridge Community College. She was still making the quilted evening bags, and students suggested she teach a class in quilting. To demonstrate the different kinds of quilts, she made quilts that had blocks of each kind (applique, crazy, patch, for instance), expanding her repertoire in the process. In demand because of her teaching, she traveled widely in the U.S. and Europe, which exposed her to new ideas in quilt-making and nudged her into the modern quilt movement. Her work helped her land a TV show, “Lap Quilting with Georgia Bonesteel,” in 1979 (look for it on Create TV). Having to come up with new artists every week exposed her to even more quilting. And to more stories about quilts.
Here’s a great one. Bonesteel’s great-great grandmother was the town seamstress in Portage, Ohio, south of Bowling Green. People brought their mending to Lottie Sayler from all over. She made clothes for lots of people. She made many wedding dresses. Married and with three daughters of her own, she lived on a farm and milked the cow, bustling about in a long apron and an ankle-length dress. About 1888 when she was 42, Lottie Sayler pieced together the top of a quilt. A busy woman, she never managed to finish the project, however.
Years later after Bonesteel had started teaching sewing, her mother Virginia Watson gave her the quilt top that Lottie Sayler never got around to using. Stored in her mother’s linen closet, the top excited Bonesteel not just because of its pattern but also because, in running her hands over it, she could feel a connection to her great-great grandmother. “She had touched every piece,” Bonesteel, still touched by the experience, said. “The fabric represented the era she lived in. She probably made dresses out of the fabric. It was just a little bit of history.”
In Bonesteel’s closet hangs what may be the very apron she remembers seeing Lottie Sayler in when she was 3. And the quilt top lives on as well—Bonesteel made it into a quilt that she plans to give to her own, very first, great-grandchild. Lottie Sayler’s work continues to spread its warmth. “That’s pretty special,” Bonesteel said.
“Quilts are often the only record that some women leave,” said Suzanne Hill McDowell, a former museum curator who advises museums in Western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee on their textile collections. “This is one way those women still speak to us. A lot of them didn’t write, other than sign their names. We can’t learn a lot of about them, but we can see their needlework and the creative skill and talent that they had. To me, that says their lives were not all drudgery. They had creative instincts, just like us. The way they would express it was through fabric, in making quilts.”
Diane Piper knows what an outlet quilt-making can be. A resident of Maggie Valley and president of the Blue Ridge Mountain Quilt Guild in Canton, she believes the process is as valuable as the product. She’s a worrier by nature, she said. She worries about her dogs, about the economy, about a lot of things. She works a couple of days a week in a real estate office that gets hectic at times. All of that melts away in the evenings, when she enters a spare bedroom of her house dedicated to quilting. There, among her two sewing machines, a six-foot cutting table and a TV she turns on for company, she starts piecing together patches. And time disappears.
“It just flows. I can lose myself,” Piper said. “It calms me down.”
Soothing as always
Quilts calm children in distress, too, according to Nancy Goodwin of the Asheville Quilt Guild. As part of Project Linus, a national program to provide handmade blankets and quilts to children in times of crisis, the guild has made more than 40,000 quilts in the past five years (the Black Mountain Quilt Guild has contributed nearly 3,000 in that time, Goodwin said). Asheville and Black Mountain police officers have wrapped them around children whose families have experienced misfortune. Staff in area hospitals have snuggled them around newborns and premature babies.
“The parents tell us the children calm down when they’re wrapped in them,” Goodwin said. “We’ve had the experience with children in battered women’s shelters that our quilts make them feel calmer and more secure. One of our neighbors just had a grandchild that went into critical care from delivery, and I received a phone call from them. They said what a wonderful thing it was to have a quilt. It made them feel as if somebody else cared. It made the situation a little bit easier.”
Quilts warm us in multiple ways, everyone associated with them seems to agree. They warm us by making us loved. They warm by reminding us of the people, primarily mothers and grandmothers, who made them and pulled them over our shoulders when they tucked us in at night. Quilts serve as nurturing, lasting mementos of the kindnesses we have received.
A couple of years ago, Coltman took her mother and two aunts, all in their 90s, to visit the family’s old homestead in Tuckaseegee and tour the old family cemetery there. They went to Cullowhee, to the Mountain Heritage Center, to see the Martha Sitton Rigdon quilt, the one Coltman’s great-grandmother made. A center employee took them into a conference room and spread the quilt out on a large table. The four women took it in, each stitch, each patch, each fold. Coltman hadn’t seen it in 35 years.
“It was still beautiful,” Coltman said, tearing up at the memory. She paused to collect herself. “It was kind of emotional, almost like you wanted to cry. I thought, what a hard life this woman had. She and her husband were never rich. They had to work very hard. They didn’t own land. But she was talented. I think she was probably more talented that she realized. It’s amazing to view something you have a connection to that was made over 100 years ago.”