What makes Kentucky quilts so special?
I recently reviewed a book published in 1998 by the Kentucky Folk Art Center at Morehead. In the book, Kentucky Quilts: Roots and Wings, Shelly Zegart wrote an essay about the history surrounding the quilting art form. Ms. Zegart reflected on the collection of short stories published in 1907, Aunt Jane of Kentucky. The central character of these stories was Jane Parrish, a 19th century quilter. “She was a folksy, calico-dressed, bespectacled Kentucky woman percolating with stories about quilts.” Her words sum up the feelings of many traditional and contemporary quilters:
“I’ve always had the name of being a good housekeeper,
But when I’m dead and gone,
There ain’t anybody going to think of the floors I’ve swept,
And the tables I’ve scrubbed,
And the old clothes I’ve patched,
And the stockings I’ve darned.
But when one of my grandchildren or greatgrandchildren,
Sees one of these quilts,
They’ll think ’bout Aunt Jane,
And I’ll know I ain’t forgotten.”
“It is unlikely that any woman of 19th century America, such as Aunt Jane, would have described a quilt she created as a work of art or as a masterpiece,” says Zegart. In many cases quilting is a person’s legacy. Quilting allows a person to not only satisfy their need to express themselves artistically but also to display their crafting skills. It wasn’t until 1971 that quilting was officially recognized as an art form as the result of a quilt exhibit at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City.
Josephine Richardson of Whitesburg, has become something of an authority on quilts and quilting. She has operated The Cozy Corner arts and crafts shop for 36 years. During that period she has bought and sold nearly 1,500 quilts. Her clientele includes not only local buyers but she also frequently sells quilts to connoisseurs throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. All of her quilts are handmade by crafters in Letcher and surrounding counties. The retail prices vary widely depending on several criteria.
“The materials used, the geometric design and the quality of the stitching are of utmost importance,” says Mrs. Richardson. “If the quilt top has an intricate design and is hand sewn, of course that shows a higher level of workmanship. I look at the accuracy with which the pieces come together throughout the quilt and the quality of the stitching on the back of the quilt. I also look at the quality of the trim work and the size of the stitches. Obviously, the smaller stitches require more time and care.
“Some of the more popular designs are the Double Wedding Ring and the Baltimore Bridal quilts which many quilters make for wedding gifts”, continued Mrs. Richardson. “The Log Cabin and many variations of star quilts are also traditional favorites.”
Mrs. Richardson’s personal collection of quilts now numbers about 50. Her daughter, Justine, lives in Canada and works for Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich. Justine is currently working on a project for the Alliance for American Quilters to document the history of quilting and quiltmakers and their place in American history. Justine will also catalogue her mom’s personal collection with photographs and a written and oral history of the collection.
Among the most prized quilts in her collection are those made by the seven Gibson sisters of Cowan during the era from the 1950s to the 1980s. “These ladies set the standard for quality which others tried to imitate,” said Mrs. Richardson. “One of their quilts was designed to honor Thelma Stovall who held the office of Lt. Governor under Gov. Julian Carroll. The sisters made the quilt to illustrate the 30 years of public service given by Mrs. Stovall in various positions in state government. The quilt, which measured 93 inches by 74 inches, has been called one of the most beautiful works ever produced in fabric and thread.”
For centuries quilting at various times has been done either for the utilitarian aspects or for the artistry, but there has been one common theme throughout. It has always been a medium for socializing. In the sparsely populated mountains of Kentucky, for example, there was very little social life for housewives other than going to church. Getting together around a quilt was a way to do something constructive while building enduring friendships and escaping the monotony of housekeeping.
The Carcassonne Quilters in Letcher County have been together for more than 40 years. When they were asked how long they intended to quilt together, they answered, “Until we all die.”
In various parts of the United States quilting has from time to time gone through periods of decline and revival, but in the mountains of eastern Kentucky the custom of quiltmaking has continued unabated for centuries.
The Letcher County Tourism and Convention Commission will present the Festival of Quilts exhibit at the Harry M. Caudill Memorial Library from February 5 to 21. For additional information, you may call Doris Adams at 632-3777 or Bessie Shepherd at 633- 9123.