A cool winter night in the mountains finds the smoke drifting from the chimney of a hand-hewn log cabin. Inside the fire crackles and a rocking chair creaks while its occupant adds a few final stitches to the quilt draped across her lap. In the bedroom the children are tucked away warm and cozy underneath a stack of quilts finished long before the cool weather set in. One she made, another was passed on to her from her mother, and another was given to her on her wedding day. It is a quiet night in the Appalachian Mountains of the nineteenth century.
In days past, quilts were a vital part of any household. For a mountain family they meant warmth and life. In the evening the fire was “banked” (covered over to assure there would be coals in the morning). Cabins cooled very quickly to temperatures nearly that of the outdoors. Quilts were vital. A single bed may have had three to nine quilts on it just to keep its occupants warm for a few hours until the morning routine began and the fire was rekindled. If company came and there were not enough beds, quilts would be used to make a pallet on the floor where, usually, the younger children were placed to sleep.
Quilting was a mountain family’s way of being frugal and artistic. The handmade quilts were pieced together from bits of fabric, then stuffed with cotton or old cloth to add thickness, warmth, and comfort. Amid the often sparse and isolated life in the mountains, quilting was a way of making the best use of materials and it provided endless artistic opportunities along with social gatherings. While the stereotypical image of a quilting bee brings to mind a room full of women, some men also enjoyed quilting as well.
Although everyone from the queen to the common housewife made quilts, in much of the United States quilting died out as cheap blankets and warmer buildings became commonplace. But the Southern Appalachian Mountains is a place where quilting never really stopped. The craft has been passed down by family, almost all of the old patterns are still used today, and competitions are held to display and honor the handiwork.
One of these exhibitions takes place at the Union County Heritage Festival in October. This is held at the Roy Acuff Union Museum in Maynardville, TN just a few minutes drive north of Knoxville. The event is hosted by the Union County Historical Society and presented by the Norris Lake Quilting Bee. Ribbons will be awarded for each category. Quilters may preregister for the event at the website.
John Rice Irwin has written a wonderful book about quilting in Southern Appalachia titled A People and Their Quilts. He gained a wealth of knowledge as he collected quilts for The Museum of Appalachia where some are on display. Handmade quilts can also be found for sale in Cherokee NC along side of other handmade blankets and crafts created by the Cherokee people. Knoxville holds an annual quilt show (see past winners), as does Paducah KY, and Lancaster PA (see American Quilter’s Society). Also see the Smoky Mountain Quilters website for a slideshow of beautiful quilts.
Communities such as Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are great places to visit as reminders of how life used to be — when quilting was a way of life and a means to life.
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