Whitesburg KY

Festival of Quilts exhibit scheduled for Feb. 5-21

Quilting is not only an old mountain tradition, but in fact the art form has been around for thousands of years. In the 11th century the Crusaders brought a form of quilting to Europe from the Middle East. Knights used quilted garments under their armor for added comfort, warmth and protection. Quilted bedding was introduced to Europe by the Romans who used the concept to sew layers of cloth together to make pallets or mattress. In the 15th century, Europeans developed the quilt-making technique out of necessity because of the harsh winters. Due to the difficulty of sewing layers together, the quilt frame was developed to facilitate holding the material layers in place while sewing.

When our European ancestors came to America, they brought the quilting art form with them and it has been passed down from generation to generation. As recently as a half century ago our parents and grandparents were making quilts out of necessity. During that era winters were colder, homes were not insulated and very few homes had central heat, but I don’t recall anyone freezing to death.

I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s. Some of my fondest memories are of the winters when everyone stayed indoors for days except an occasional trip to the outhouse.

I lived in #15 Hollow of McRoberts. My grandmother, Louisa Fleming, owned a farm there. Several of her grown children and dozens of grandchildren lived close by. We were a close knit family. Every winter Grandma set up a quilting frame and all of the family members who came to visit would take turns quilting. The furniture in the living room or bedroom was scooted out of the way to set up the quilting horses and framework. Some families were a little more sophisticated. They had the quilting frame suspended from the ceiling and at night the quilt and framework could be lifted up out of the way.

The quilts which Grandma made were designed to be functional. She didn’t get into the decorative, intricately designed patterns. The quilt top was usually a simple design made from material remnants. The material was usually cut in four-inch squares using scissors and a cardboard template. Grandma had a Singer sewing machine which she kept close to a window. The little 40-watt light bulb suspended from the middle of the ceiling with a pull chain for an on/off switch was hardly enough light for her work. I was fascinated with Grandma’s skills with that machine. I loved to watch her thread the bobbin and set up the machine to begin sewing. She could operate the treadle with her foot, feed the material through the sewing mechanism and carry on a conversation or sing a song at the same time. I tried it a few times but never could get the hang of it. To me it was like trying to rub your stomach and pat your head at the same time. Sometimes the drive belt would fly off the pulley and she would let me put it back on, so at least I contributed something.

After hundreds of squares were sewn together to make the quilt top, she would lay out the three layers on a bed for assembly. First, the backing or lining which was usually of white cotton cloth was laid down, then a layer of thin cotton was added for padding. The quilt top completed the three basic components. Sometimes an old worn blanked was used for padding instead of store bought cotton. The quilt frame consisted of wooden sawhorses, wooden rods and clamps. The material was attached to two wooden rods with tacks on opposing ends of the quilt. The assembly was then placed on the sawhorses and pulled relatively tight and clamped in place.

Many times it was too cold for us kids to go outside and play so Grandma would let us help quilt. I recall vividly how she took a piece of chalk and tied it on a string. She found a pivot point for the string on the wooden rod then stretched the string about a foot and drew an arc on the material with the chalk. She would shorten the string about an inch and draw another arc inside the first one and continue the process until she was back to the pivot point. We used these chalk marks as a guide for the stitching. That was enough to keep me busy for a few hours. Grandma would thread a needle for me and tie a knot in the end of the thread to keep it from going all the way through the material. She always made the first stitches for me to be sure the knot was on the underside of the quilt and to illustrate how close together she wanted the stitches. I’d usually take just one stitch at a time. Sometimes I’d try to take several stitches like Grandma and she’d let me use her thimble to push the needle through. If I started making the stitches too big, she would stop me and take the stitches out and make me start all over. I think we call that quality control today.

It usually took several days to complete a quilt with kids and adults taking turns. Sometimes there would be four or five gathered around quilting at the same time. When one run was completed across the width of the quilt, the clamps were loosened and the wooden rod was rolled under the quilt and clamped again to begin another run. The process continued until the quilting was done then a border was sewn around the perimeter of the quilt to cover the irregularities and for decorative purposes. Sometimes the adults would get started talking about an adult subject and realize the kids were listening. One of the adults would say something like, “little pitchers have big ears” and they would change the subject.

I don’t recall Grandma ever making a quilt with the intention of putting it on a quilt rack for display. Her quilts were made because there was a need in her home or it was a gift for some of her children. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t remember anyone freezing to death. Folks kept fires going in the cookstove in the kitchen almost around the clock because people actually cooked three meals a day back then and of course this helped heat the house too. With a fireplace in another room there was usually enough heat. We boys always wore long john underwear during the winter and when we sank up in Grandma’s featherbed and had a couple quilts on top of us, it was nothing but sweet dreams.

A few years ago the late Larry Fuller, a bluegrass musician, recorded a song in which the lyrics said, “I’d like to go back there just for a day.” That has always been one of my favorite songs because it reminds me of the many joys of growing up in the head of a hollow with none of the modern conveniences we know today. Life was simpler then and families and neighbors were closer. If I could re-live any part of my life I would choose that era.

Quilting today is an art form that remains an important part of our mountain heritage. Many families have quilts that have become priceless heirlooms passed down for generations. Folks continue quilting today, not so much out of necessity but for the social value of quilting together with friends and neighbors and the pride in creating a work of art.

The Letcher County Tourism and Convention Commission will sponsor the Festival of Quilts exhibit at the Harry M. Caudill Memorial Library in Whitesburg Feb. 5-21. Because of the anticipated response we must limit the exhibit to one quilt per person. We would like for each participant to write a brief story about the quilt not to exceed one page and attach it to the quilt. Because we mountain people put such a tremendous sentimental value on our quilts we want everyone to know that security will be provided.

For additional information, you may call Doris Adams at 632-3777 or Bessie Shepherd at 633-9123.

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