Thursday, August 03, 2006

Appalachian Quilts and Textiles

A Mid-Nineteenth Century Quilt
(Western Carolina University's Mountain Heritage Center)

A couple of years ago, as I was walking back to my car after class one afternoon, I passed the University of Tennessee’s McClung Museum – one of those venues that seems to be evenly divided between anthropological and natural history exhibits. Regardless, hanging outside of the museum was a banner which informed me that there was an exhibit on Appalachian textiles.

I was intrigued.

Let me pause for a second. My Momma’ loved quilts and handmade blankets – loved ‘m. Every time I walk past a homemade quilt, well, I think of her and debate internally, as if she was still alive, whether or not she would like it, and often, if its for sale, whether or not I have enough money to buy it. Then it all hits me again and, honestly, Momma’ dies a little death again. Makes festivals tough, honestly – maybe it’s strange, but it’s true.

So now you know why a guy, then in his late twenties, decided to delay his weekend to look at quilts.

The point to this backstory is simply this - it was my encounter with the McClung Museum's exhibit that made me start think of the process of quilt-making, weaving, and other forms of textile creation as an artform, rather than simply as a craft. The exhibit discussed the influence these arts had on modern fine artists (not so much cubism as much as the more geometric, fully abstract arts). And when I considered this point, I was convinced. Sure, some weavers or quilters aim solely at mass production or pragmatism, but a substantial number were deeply creative, concentrating on the composition and design process not only as a practical consideration but further as a genuine expression of artistic sensibilities (Vaughn, I am curious to hear your reaction to this).

Let me further add that I am entirely aware that the quilt is not solely and Appalachian art-form, or even solely American. But, like so many fine arts and crafts, quilting has largely become a geographically isolated activity, found in rural regions that are largely unconnected – like isolated patches of forest - as megalopolii expand and overtake previously agricultural and frontier areas. Appalachia, as a region, is probably the largest unbroken small-population region left east of the Mississippi, which means that the quilt, um, connoisseur, can immerse him- or herself more deeply here than anywhere else.

That said, I am the first to admit that I am no quilt expert. The only sewing I can do is cross-stitching (the product of Mom trying to occupy little hands when I was a kid) and emergency ‘trail’ sewing of the kind that every Boy Scout is obliged to learn the first time a storm is coming and a pole went astray. The internet, however, being a bountiful place, more than makes up for that weakness.

Consider, for instance, the Clinch-Holston “Quilt Trails” - which, from what I can tell, are a set of roads along which home and business owners in Grangier, Hawkins, Hancock, and Claiborne Counties (Tennessee) display quilts of different designs as architectural elements. Could make a heck of a Sunday drive – at least if gasoline doesn’t reach $5.00 a gallon. Next week. Regardless, the Watauga region of northeast Tennessee has a similar Quilt Trail – so, um, do that one to. On another Sunday.

All I am going to say is – and get ready for this – Cosmic Possum.

So you’re looking for more “academic” sites? Well, there is always Western Carolina University’s Mountain Heritage Center, where you can find the Southern Appalachian Quilt Exhibit. The Digital Heritage Network provides this article (also on coverlets), and this article on East Tennessee State University’s Reese Museum website on Bets Ramsey, who’s work is absolutely beautiful. Morehead State University’s Center for Virtual Appalachia has an on-line Quilt Collection that warrants a take-a-gander as well – this one is particularly awesome because of the fact that it allows you to compare the personal styles of particular quilt-artisans. Also worth a look-see are the quilts featured at the Appalachian College Association’s Digital Library of Appalachia and the length and breadth of Harrisonburg’s Virginia Quilt Museum.


Our Goblin Market said...

Quilting as a formal and theoretical form of art is one of those situations which has it's own parameters, concerns, rules/regulations, and developments. Therefore, it would seem that the act of quilting in many cases could be called a fine art. Quilting, as in reference to its category does closely fit with modern painting instead of a "folk" craft painting because of the idea behind the maker. My grandmother made quilts and Afghans. We have over a hundred pieces in my house. Each one different, and each reaching in its own concept. I am sure that there is a slight pull for mass production and consumerism but isn't that part of everything. Very simply to be an artist you are probably concerned about how to cover the cost of the next project and so selling is beneficial on that account. On the most and what I have personally seen I do not believe that any thought for money plays a roll in the making. I used to sit and watch her make these beautiful things. The act for her was composition, the feel of making it, who it was going to, what it said, and how it moved. The last of these is the most important. The piece had to "move" right. A folk painter makes a piece which is for that reason, a modern "art painter," (if you will) makes a piece for modern art, but a person who pieces together a quilt does it for so many more reason. This is where the Form and the Function can be equally weighed. This is also why I feel that quilt making can stand on it's own amongst the pure forms of the highest arts. I watched the hands of a high artist when I watched my grandmother sew, no doubt about that.

Jeremy Peters said...

Thanks for this post Eric!

Fewer things are more Appalachian than quilt making. I used to watch my Mom and Mamaw quilt during the winter growing up. There was a joke in our family that winter had not truly arrived until a quilt was up, and usually the snow came with a vengeance soon after. It was poetic watching them make something beautiful designed for warmth and comfort while the cold and snow of winter swirled outside. It conjures up strong family sentiments in me as well.

Mamaw always designs the quilts and has used a couple of different styles of quilting over the years. The exact terminology is lost on me, but one involved piecing together quilts from different patterns of fabric. The other involved stitching patterns into the quilt with thread, usually on fabric of a shade of white. I have some lovely examples of each that she gave as presents for our wedding.

And Mamaw can spot a hand-made quilt from one made with a sewing machine. Before Interstate 26 was completed between Johnson City and Asheville, there used to be a place going up the mountain to Sam's Gap that sold handmade quilts alongside the road. Mamaw would always want to stop to examine their handiwork. She always liked their quilts because she could tell they were hand stitched.

Thanks again for sharing this post.

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