Craft History: Quilts and Quilting

Quilts and Quiltmaking in North Carolina
By Gaye Rice Ingram and Lynn Lancaster Gorges

Quilts and quiltmaking are among the oldest, most distinguished elements in North Carolina’s cultural history. More than objects of beauty, quilts also have been powerful means of passing on the values and traditions of a people, and they speak eloquently of the roles women have played in this cultural transmission. In them we discover deeply personal stories, commemorating births, marriages, friendships, and most of all, family ties. But in the quilts of North Carolina, we also may read the history of our state.

A quilt is a bedcover created by sewing two layers of fabric together with an interior padding, usually cotton or wool. Originating in China around 3500 B.C., quilting did not reach Europe until the late Middle Ages, brought by crusaders returning from battles to free the Holy Land. The European knights described the superior agility of their Saracen opponents, who wore vests quilted with straw and covered with light chain mail armor that provided protection equal to the heavy European plate armor and that afforded far superior maneuverability. Such garments soon appeared in European armies, and the art of quilting was quickly adapted to clothing, bed covers, and bed curtains to ward off the cold of northern winters.

The first quilting to arrive on American shores appears to have been the “Jackes of maile quilted upon fustian" belonging to Captain John Smith’s archers – chain mail armor quilted onto woven jackets – in 1591-1595, at Jamestown, Virginia. Almost surely, quilted petticoats arrived in North Carolina before quilted bedcovers. (Averil Colby, p. 58. Tandy Hersh, “Quilted Petticoats,” In Pieced by Mother: Symposium Papers, pp 3-12.)

Like so many other elements of European culture, quilting would be transformed in America.

Contrary to popular opinion, the earliest American quilts did not grow out of privation and need, but were products of wealth and leisure. Manufactured fabric was costly in the 18th and early 19th centuries, beyond the easy reach of most early settlers. Moreover, quiltmaking required free time, and for most of the farm families who made up the southern states, time was as dear as fabric. Thus, the first quilts in North Carolina were made within families of wealth, where women had both the leisure and the financial means required for their production.

The earliest surviving North Carolina quilts come from the early Scots-Irish settlements of Mecklenburg, Iredell, and Cabarrus counties. Made in the 1820’s, they reveal a region already grown so prosperous that a number of its residents could enjoy such luxurious symbols of status. Few groups had chaffed longer or more unhappily under English rule than the Scots-Irish. Yet when their wives and daughters made their first quilts, they turned to England for design inspiration and fabrics. (Ellen Eanes,  “Nine Related Quilts in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. 1800-1840,” Uncoverings 1982. 25-42; William K. Boyd, History of North Carolina, vol 2, The Federal Period, 1783-1860; Dr. John Brevard Alexander, History of Mecklenburg County.)

Their quilts reflect the two major trends in English quilt making in the late 18th century. The first, the wholecloth quilt, was usually made from two large pieces of silk or fine cotton, stuffed with a batting of loose cotton or wool, and quilted in decorative patterns. The second, the medallion style, used the wildly popular cotton chintzes and calicoes from India or, more likely, their English reproductions. From these prints, quiltmakers cut out design elements and then applied them with fine stitches to plain whole cloth. creating thereby a pleasing design framed with strips of chintz and background fabric. Examples of these styles remain in North Carolina families and museums. (Ellen Eanes, “Chintz Applique Quilts,” North Carolina Quilts, pp. 37-62. See also Lacy Folmar Bullard and Betty Jo Schiell, Chintz Quilts. Unfading Glory;  Jeremy Adamson, Calico & Chintz: Antique Quilts From the Collection of Patricia S. Smith; Jinny Beyer, The Art and Technique of Creating Medallion Quilts.)

These would be the last North Carolina quilts to reflect such a consciously British viewpoint and aesthetic. By the 1840’s, settlers flowing into the state by the Great Wagon Road had introduced new methods of quiltmaking that would create a distinctively American art, one that reflected American experience. The apparent results of cross-cultural borrowings between ethnic groups in the Delaware River Valley, these new quilts used a geometrical block as the unit of design and construction. In the easily portable blocks of cloth, North Carolinians found a way to achieve beauty even as they moved steadily south along the great highway.

Blocks were composed of geometrical units of solid-color fabrics arranged to represent the flowers whose roots settlers brought with them, the trees of the great forests through which they had passed, and the hardships they had endured. Here, then, was something new – abstract representational art, design that exhibited the main qualities of an image or object through geometry, that conveyed reality in a new way. Its design freedom was available to anyone who could fold a square of paper. No longer bound by the birds and flowers printed onto the European chintzes and calicoes, these quilters launched a tradition that spoke boldly in a new idiom about experience in a new land. (Allen G. Keyser, “Early Pennsylvania-German Traditions of Beds, Bedding, Bedsteads and Sleep,” Pieced by Mother: Symposium Papers, pp. 23-34. For general discussions of historic trends in quiltmaking, see Roderick Kiracofe with Mary Elizabeth Johnson, The American Quilt: A History of Cloth and Comfort 1750-1950; Patsy and Myron Orlofsky, Quilts in America; Barbara Brackman, America’s Printed Fabrics: 1770-1890; Clues in the Calico.)

By the 1840’s the new geometrical designs, called “piecework” or “piecing,” were being used and modified by North Carolina quilt makers of all economic and ethnic groups. Quilt historian Kathlyn Sullivan estimates that such quilts make up roughly 90 percent of all the quilts ever made in the state. Demanding no less skill than their predecessors, the blocks were easier for an unsettled people to transport, and in their designs, passed down in families and communities for over 150 years, may be seen both the innovative spirit and the conservatism of North Carolina’s people. (Kathlyn Sullivan, “Pieced and Plentiful,” North Carolina Quilts. See also Barbara Brackman, Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns; Jonathan Holstein, The Pieced Quilt: An American Design Tradition.)

Along with the geometrical blocks came a number of more representational blocks in which designs cut from colored fabrics were sewn onto plain squares. Yet, here too one sees the stylized roses, lilies, peonies, and cotton bolls of the southern landscape, rendered in the bold colors that characterize North Carolina quilts. (Erma Hughes Kirkpatrick, “Garden Variety Applique.” In North Carolina Quilts. See also Barbara Brackman, Encyclopedia of Applique: An Illustrated, Numerical Index to Traditional and Modern Patterns.)

By 1860, quiltmaking in the state had become a highly developed art form. The availability of fabric from the growing number of regional textile mills undoubtedly affected North Carolina quiltmaking, and a growing economy and more settled population provided favorable conditions for its further development. The state’s first mill was built in 1815 by Michael Schenck, and by 1850 North Carolina’s textile industry was firmly established. While many of the early mills produced only the threads for weaving or a rough osnaburg sometimes called “slave cloth,” a growing number were integrated mills and produced better dress goods that found their way into the state’s quilts. Particularly important was Holt Mills in Alamance County, the first mill in the nation to produce woven cotton plaids. Alamance plaids and a dull yellow found only in quilts in Alamance County are important clues to those seeking to establish the provenance of North Carolina quilts. (Roberson (ed), pp. 12-15, 19, 23, 24, 73,92; plates 3.12, 3.13, 3.25)

Either from economic necessity or because of lack of access to suitable fabrics, many quilters continued to use home-woven fabrics dyed with traditional home dyes. But from the mountains of western North Carolina to the coastal fishing communities, in all ethnic groups, by mid-century quiltmaking in the new style was practiced and passed along by most women in the state. (See also Laurel Horton, “Nineteenth Century Middle Class Quilts in Macon County, North Carolina,” in Uncoverings, pp. 87-98 and Social Fabric: South Carolina’s Traditional Quilts, pp. 11-33; Joyce Jones Newman. North Carolina Country Quilts: Regional Variations; John Bivens and Forsyth Alexander, The Regional Arts of the Early South: A Sampling from the Collectiion of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts; John Michael Vlach, The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts; Betsy K. White, Great Road Style: The Decorative Arts Legacy of Southwest Virginia & Northeast Tennessee.)

The Civil War devastated North Carolina’s growing economy and destroyed many of its quilts, which were torn up for bandages, sent off to war with sons and husbands, and destroyed by war’s fires. The war also reinforced the conservative cultural bent among the state’s people and affirmed their sense of communal identity. Quilt patterns from the past were cherished all the more for their personal histories, and they continue to circulate among succeeding generations of quilt makers, reinforcing the links between past, present, and future and the connections between a people and a place. (See, e.g., Bets Ramsey and Merikay Waldvogel. Southern Quilts: Surviving Relics of the Civil War. William K. Boyd, History of North Carolina, vol 2, The Federal Period, 1783-1860.)

The war also damaged the textile industry. Mill machinery was transformed into weapons of war and the mills themselves, which had turned to making fabric for Confederate uniforms, became targets of Union armies. But by the 1880’s, the state had regained its place as a leading producer of textiles. Mill yardage and remnants are found in many of the state’s quilts. Among the textiles that became associated with North Carolina quilts of this period were a muddy blue-green and an oxblood solid that were combined with a cheddar solid in traditional patterns, replacing the older clear red, green, and yellow colors. (See, e.g., Roberson (ed), North Carolina Quilts, plates 3.1, 3.3, 3.4, 4.21, 5.2.)

North Carolina women participated in the major national trends in quiltmaking like the “crazy quilt” fad of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the colonial quilt revivals of the 1920’s and 1930’s, and the quilt revival sparked by the nation’s bicentennial observations. With the advent of publications like The Progressive Farmer and newspapers that included quilt patterns, quilters expanded their vocabulary of patterns in the 20th century, although they tended to remain faithful to patterns first brought into the state in the 1830’s and 1840’s. (Sue Barker McCarter,  “Crazy Quilts: Quiet Protest,” North Carolina Quilts; Penny McMorris, Crazy Quilts; Ricky Clark, “Mid-19th Century Album and Friendship Quilts: 1860-1920,” Pieced by Mother: Symposium Papers, pp. 77-86; Jeanna Kimball, Red and Green: An Applique Tradition; Dorothy Cozart. “The Role and Look of Fundraising Quilts: 1860-1976,” Pieced by Mother: Symposium Papers, pp. 87-96; Waldvogel, Merikay. Soft Covers for Hard Times: Quiltmaking & The Great Depression; Patsy and Myron Orlofsky, Quilts in America.)

In North Carolina, quiltmaking has remained vital, even in times when it has flagged in other places. The number of quilts made annually no doubt declined in the economic booms following World War II, when many women were able to purchase inexpensive blankets. Yet the art and the admiration for quilts never has died out. Through war and peace, booms and busts, North Carolina women have made quilts to celebrate children’s and grandchildren’s births, graduations, and weddings. Generations have grown up sleeping beneath bright, hand-stitched quilts. There have always been the “best” quilts, reserved for darkened guest rooms, quilt shows, and competitions, which helped establish women’s places in communities. Families have carefully preserved these and other humbler quilts of earlier generations, passing along their stories and the values of their makers with the quilts. Yet, the vitality of North Carolina quiltmaking also may be seen in the number of quilts that are made each year to commemorate special events in families and communities, the ones under which babies sleep and the ones brides take to their new homes. (See, e.g., Pat Ferrero, Elaine Hedges, Julie Silber, Hearts and Hands: The Influence of Women & Quilts on American Society; Freeman, Roland. Something To Keep You Warm; Patricia Cooper and Norma Bradley Buferd. The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art; John A. Burrison,  Folk Arts In A Changing South.)

North Carolina has had a disproportionate influence on quiltmaking in the South. One quilt historian who has studied the evolution of a distinctively southern quilt pattern has repeatedly traced examples made in Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas have roots in old Mecklenburg County. She has discovered the same roots for quilts found in Southwestern Ohio, southern Indiana and Illinois, Kansas, and Nebraska. Preliminary research into certain techniques and color preferences also support the influence of the strongly Scots-Irish region on the rest of the South.  As Indian threats declined in the Old Southwest in the 1830’s and 1840’s, younger generations of Mecklenburg County families like the Polks and the Knoxes moved into Tennessee and the Deep South, taking to their new homes the culture and arts of North Carolina.  Even earlier, the  predominantly Scots-Irish migration along the Wagon Road had passed through Mecklenburg in route to Georgia and the Southwest, taking with it things learned in this influential, wealthy region.