Quilt Alliance preserves material heritage, American history
By Skylar Baker-Jordan
Sometime in the mid-1980s, a snowstorm hit East Tennessee, preventing Joy Branham’s husband from returning to their Hancock County home. “For one week, all I had to do was feed the animals, feed the fire, and feed me,” she said. “So, I decided that while I’m home, I will start a quilt.” What was meant to be a three-by-four block turned into her “masterpiece,” a beautiful hand-stitched green and red quilt with a center medallion inspired by Edward Hicks’ early 19th century paintings “A Peaceable Kingdom,” with the lion, the lamb, and the child to lead them displayed prominently.
Branham told this story on Saturday, May 13, 2023, at the McKinney Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee, as part of Community Quilt Days, a project of the Quilt Alliance, based in Asheville, North Carolina. Held in North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky, Community Quilt Days “make connections” by allowing the Quilt Alliance to “partner with folks in the community who have quilts to share, who have history to tell,” Amy Milne, executive director of the Quilt Alliance, said.
Community Quilt Days, Milne said, is a simple, grassroots effort. People in the areas where the events are held bring quilts they have either made or acquired, sometimes through purchase but often handed down through the generations.
Participants are invited to create brief “Go Tell It!” videos for a Quilt Alliance documentation project to capture the stories and histories of quilts. Owners share things such as who made their quilt, the creative process behind it, and how the quilt came into their possession. The videos are uploaded to the Quilt Alliance’s YouTube channel as well as deposited into the Library of Congress’ American Folk Life Center.
Documenting the history is important, Merikay Waldvogel, an internationally recognized expert in American quilts, said. She has been involved with the Quilt Alliance since its inception in 1993, and was present at the event in Jonesborough, where she offered her expertise to quilters speaking about their quilts. “It’s everyday people who made these quilts,” she said, “and these are not the people that usually make it into the historical record. And, of course, they’re usually women who made these quilts.”
During the 19th century, Waldvogel said, “some of these women didn’t even show up in records,” meaning that sometimes the only place they put down their own name was on a quilt. “That, to me, is the No. 1 reason for working in this field over the years,” she said. She fears that if these stories — so often the stories of American women’s history and of family histories — are not recorded, they will disappear.
One such story that captured Waldvogel’s attention in Jonesborough was brought in by Tammy Selby, who showed a quilt which her husband had received from his father. The quilt, Selby told the audience, originated in Alexandria, Virginia. “The maker of the quilt was Mary Catherine Pennywitte Monroe and her daughters, Betty and Susan,” she said. “We don’t know exactly when it was made,” though the note that accompanied the quilt says it was around 1850, “what the occasion was, I don’t even really know where it spent the rest of its years after it was made.”
Waldvogel did some investigating after the show, finding evidence that corroborates the oral history Selby shared on Saturday. “It turned out it was a Farmers Fancy pattern, which is really a regional pattern that shows up … in the northern part of the Shenandoah,” she said. Not only is the pattern unique to that region of the country, the textiles and colors also date the quilt to the 1850s. Waldvogel said it is the oldest Farmers Fancy quilt ever documented.
It is discoveries like this one that prompted the Quilt Alliance to document this kind of oral history, Milne said. “The idea of the Community quilt Days is really (to) make connections, partner with folks in the community who have quilts to share, who have history tell,” she said.
The ability to share that history appealed to Branham, who also brought her grandmother’s quilt, which was made for — but not entered — the Chicago World’s Fair competition in 1933. “I’d been watching the three-minute quilt videos on YouTube,” she said, “and I was just delighted.” While she had displayed and spoken about both quilts in the past, she wanted to make sure that the memories she has of these quilts are preserved.
For Branham, quilting is not just an art form — though it is certainly that — but also a way to carry on family traditions. “My grandmother was a quilter, and I loved her quilts, and I loved the whole process,” she said. “I learned to crochet and do hairpin lace and drawn work and all kinds of that kind of stuff from my grandmother.” And while she has quilted on machines before, “Grandma always hand quilted,” Branham said, “so I hand quilted and I still hand quilt.”
Another important aspect of recording quilt history, Waldvogel said, is that “it supplements the historical record that is handed down or taught in the educational system, or among families” by offering a primary source of material culture for historians and genealogists.
Such is the case with the quilt Selby brought in. Because the owner of the quilt had the names of the woman who made it as well as the names of her two daughters who may have helped with the quilt, Waldvogel can begin to trace the history of that quiltmaker. She plans on checking the genealogy to further contextualize the quilt’s history, which in turn is part of both Virginia and American history.
“Preserving that object is preserving a trace of our culture, of that community, of that person, of that family,” Milne said. Quilts contain key pieces of information such as dates, names, places, events, and even stories, she said. “Unless a dog is involved, or a fire, or some kind of calamity, the quilts are likely to live longer” than the individuals making them. “So, they are an important document of that time.”
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a graduate student at East Tennessee State University in Appalachian Studies, and a staff member of Appalachian Places.