Many women in Appalachia were dedicated quilt makers. My grandmothers were no exception to the women who sewed quilts for their families. During the time when cotton was king of the south, Grandma Ethel worked in cotton mills in Tennessee and South Carolina. Her mother had taught her how to sew prior to this. In 1940, she earned $208 per month working at the South Carolina mill. Once she was back home in Tennessee, she made use of an antique Singer peddle sewing machine.
Grandma often made quilts and gave them away to family, friends, neighbors, and passersby. I remember one time a poor family stopped by her house to ask about some chickens. She went inside the house and brought out a nice quilt she had made. They were very happy to receive such a nice gift, especially with the cold temperatures we often experienced in the Appalachian Mountains. We would make trips into nearby Virginia to get bread and pastries from the bread store. On the way home, Grandma would stop by a sewing factory called “Pins and Needles” to pick up scrap fabric pieces. This was an old school building that had been converted into a sewing factory. It shut down around 1993-1995. The company always gave these scrap pieces to her for free. These pieces came in very long, plastic, see-through bags. She kept these bags of quilt scraps stored all over the house, in the old cars outside, and wherever she could cram them.
Appalachia is also widely known for barn quilts. The Appalachian Quilt Trail is a popular trail that leads visitors across sections of Appalachia that includes more than 300 stops of agricultural, art, history, and cultural points. Colorful, painted, quilt blocks on wood hang on various barns and buildings. In Hancock County, Tennessee, barn quilts can be found hanging at Elrod Falls and River Place on the Clinch (a famous restaurant and country store).
In old Appalachia, quilts could be found hanging on walls as decorations or to keep the cold out, used as photo background props, or spread out on the ground for a picnic. My uncle gave me a handmade quilt that either my grandmother or great-grandmother had made. The pattern was called a “bow-tie” pattern because each square has quilted bow ties all over it (see photo). Many of our family members have these quilts our grandmothers made. My cousin also has the antique sewing machines our grandmothers used to make these quilts on.