Images of quilts and oral histories by quiltmakers celebrating the tradition of quilting in Tennessee.
This unit of the Tennessee Virtual Archive celebrates the tradition of quilting in Tennessee. The images displayed here, drawn from a variety of collections at TSLA, portray both quilts themselves and Tennessee quilters engaging in their craft. Audio files of oral histories provided by quiltmakers are also featured here, offering a richer understanding of the utility and symbolism of quilts throughout the state’s past. Whether displayed on the walls of a museum or employed for their original purpose, Tennessee quilts embody the spirit and values of the Volunteer State better than any other tangible object.
In Alice Walker’s short story Everyday Use, the central conflict between two daughters—one a modern, progressive urbanite and the other a simple girl who never left the family’s rural Southern farm—is symbolized chiefly by a grandmother’s heirloom quilts. When the urban sister visits the farm after embracing a new life and taking a new name, she is horrified to learn that the family’s precious quilts will be put to "everyday use," rather than being hung on a wall for display. The quilts in Walker’s story (one of which contains a scrap of material taken from a Civil War uniform) are typical of those that quiltmakers have crafted throughout American history.
Traditionally, society entrusted the care and keeping of the domestic realm to women. Housework, child-rearing, cooking, and tending the sick each necessitated the implementation—and often the creation—of certain tools to achieve these duties. Perhaps no object is more emblematic of the female’s role in the home than the quilt, a product that served a very basic practical purpose, enhanced the aesthetic sense of the home, and afforded the woman a canvas on which to air her political or social inclinations.
The necessarily measured pace required to construct quilts allowed makers creative planning time to craft elaborate designs for their works of art. Throughout the South, quiltmakers used quilts as artistic objects to convey personal attitudes toward events of the day. The Whig Rose pattern emerged in response to a popular political party of the antebellum period; its floral design occasionally signified the partisan leanings of its maker and her household. Quiltmakers also expressed religious themes with patterns such as Crown of Thorns, Rose of Sharon, and Tree of Life.
Many individuals used quilts to tell more personal stories. After the Civil War, makers used quilts to mourn or memorialize family members who had died in the conflict. Some ladies and societies also created quilts that celebrated particular regiments or companies in the Confederate or Union armies. Consequently, family lore often surrounds quilts. In Southern Quilts: Surviving Relics of the Civil War, the story of Nan Kinkead’s Cave Hill Farm Quilt involves a wandering soldier and the concealment of a quilt in a cave. Such tales, whether true or not, convey the important role that quilts played in an earlier culture.
The social aspect of quilting, though perhaps overstated, should not be ignored. In John Rice Irwin’s A People and Their Quilts, several elderly Appalachian women scoff at the notion that quilting could be considered a social endeavor. The everyday drudgery of mountain life, the difficulty of traveling for leisure, and the very logistics of hosting more than a few women in a primitive cabin prevented these individuals from enjoying "quilting bees," or large gatherings of quiltmakers, which have evolved as a stereotype of quilting. Other individuals (perhaps those of slightly more comfortable means) remember with fondness such quilting parties. In fact, Irwin points out that "none of the other household chores warranted such gatherings." One can imagine that it was easier for women in rural areas to justify get-togethers if the activity resulted in a usable product.
Though overwhelmingly a female endeavor, quilting has also been pursued by men, as evidenced by the designs of Jewel Allen (incidentally, Mr. Allen’s wife instructed him on the art of quiltmaking). One may also listen to Mr. Allen discuss his art as part of this unit’s audio feature.