Appalachia crafts

Quilts and Comforts

quilts in Appalachia

I don’t think anyone can say the word Appalachia without thinking of quilts.

I’ve spent my life sleeping under handmade quilts. I used to view them from a utilitarian point of view, quilts were to keep me warm at night. It was only after I reached adulthood that I saw the beauty in handmade quilts.

The quilt above was made by Granny when I was a small girl. It’s coming apart in places, but I still love it. If I’m feeling under the weather this is the quilt I want to cover up with on the couch. She made it from various scraps of old clothing, one of which was a red corduroy coat she used to wear.

Back in the day quilts were a necessity of life, well they still are to a degree. Quilts offer a way to protect ourselves from the cold. Yet, when you look back to the days of living in a house without insulation and only a fireplace or cookstove to supply heat you can quickly realize what an important role quilts played in the days of old.

In those days the skill of quilting stretched across all social classes. You needed warmth from the cold whether you were well to do or poor as a church mouse. Even though quilting was a necessary skill for women, it seemed they found true enjoyment in the process. Another pleasure that developed around quilting is the quilting bee where ladies gathered to quilt and visit one with another.

There are still quilting circles in communities across the country and some quilters have taken the quilting bee to a new level-a technologically savvy level. Quilters post about making quilt squares not to keep, but to pass along to a member of their virtual quilting circle.

Over the years I’ve discussed quilts here on the Blind Pig and The Acorn. Here a few of my favorite comments.

My grandmother used to make comforts, not quilts. We used them hard and I do not know of any in existence today. She was a hard German woman, but thrifty–all her quilts were made from sewing scraps. She wasn’t Appalachian either-they lived in New Orleans and later in Washington DC. But I have quilts! None made by me, I’m not so talented. I find mine at auctions and yard sales, thrift shops, etc. My very favorite is a big, heavy comfort made from old upholstery fabrics–rich brocades and velvets–that I sleep under every night. Second favorite is a lovely feed-sack double wedding ring that I bought for $25 at an antique mall. I couldn’t believe the price was right! I use it almost every time I tell stories because to me the rings symbolize stories circling back to us, the patterns represent the many different kinds of stories and the whole quilt represents the world we live in, as well as the creativity of the mountain people.

Granny Sue ~ 2008

We had wood heat early in my life & lived in Grandpa’s sharecropper house (shack). It was rough built with no insulation & the beds were cold as ice. We used to stand & bake our behinds at the fire & then run & jump in the bed. We had a pile of those thick, heavy quilts & they were sure ugly but such a blessing. My husband’s family is more refined & have pieced & quilted many beautiful “fancy” quilts. I love them but they aren’t warm like the old timey kind.

Wanda ~ 2011

You story about quilts brings back memories of visiting my grandparents in Sylva, NC. Their old house was a big, old 3-story farm house that had no insulation in it at all. When we visited at Christmas, my brother and I were sent to a room on the third floor. The only heat in the house was a huge wood-burning kitchen stove and a pot-bellied stove in the living room. These were a long way from that third floor. I remember going to bed at night and crawling under a stack of grandmother’s heavy quilts and freezing for about 30 seconds until the warmth kicked in. Then I was toasty, but could not move because of the weight of the quilts and the fear that I would have to warm up another part of the bed. Those cold nights under those quilts are some of my fondest memories of visits to Granddad and Grandmother’s farm. The fancy quilts of today just don’t have that weight to them, so I am not interested in them. I miss Grandmother’s quilts.

Mike McClain ~ 2011

My hubby and I sleep under a beautiful cathedral window quilt my grandma stitched for me. Every stitch is by hand, and if you have ever seen a cathedral window quilt, you will know that’s a lot of stitches! She has made one for every one of her children and grandchildren. She used to have one on her bed made by my great-grandmother. I loved looking at all of the fabrics and wondering what long-forgotten piece of clothing they came from. I, too, have spent all of my life sleeping under a homemade quilt. And I definitely have one at my mom’s house that is THE sick day quilt. And the boys both sleep with baby quilts made by my grandma.

Twosquaremeals ~ 2008

My Mamaw (called “Maw” by us northern grandkids) worked at a shirt factory and brought home bags of scraps that my Great-Mamaw and Great-Aunts made into quilts. I have a quilt my great Aunt (who was also my Godmother) made me when I was a child. I still use it today, although one that I made now lives atop my bed. I have a much older one made by my Great-Aunts that I was given after their deaths and it sits on a bachelors chair in my livingroom, along with a rag doll that I got when I was 6. These are the things I would grab as I left the house if there ever was a fire.

Sarah ~ 2008

If you have a favorite handmade quilt please tell us about it!




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  • Reply
    Jo Reece Flowers
    September 22, 2017 at 8:33 pm

    My Mama was a quilter. Her quilts are treasures. Treasures filled with memories:
    I remember her choosing chicken feed by the matching the sacks planning for quilt backing.
    I remember ladies giving her groceries sacks packed tightly full of pieces of fabric scraps which she carefully sorted and ironed and cut and stitched.
    I remember her quilt frames hanging from the living room ceiling and quiltings with neighbors during the day, then raising the quilt frame at night so the family could still gather together to watch television. I remember how the quilt patches glowed like stained glass under the bare light of our living room ceiling.
    When the quilts were finished and ready to cover her children, i remember lying still and flat in bed while Mama would lift the colorful open quilt high in the air and let it float down with all of us laughing. “Now I lay me down to sleep. God Bless Mama and Daddy.” “God Bless Mama’s Babies”

  • Reply
    September 22, 2017 at 12:11 am

    I love making quilts. wish I had more time to spend doing it. currently I am squaring up the blocks for a log cabin quilt that I’m making for my daughter. I have a quilt top (if I can figure out where I stashed it when I rearranged my studio/sewing room) that just needs to be put in the quilt sandwich and quilted, made from scraps that I cut in strips and sewed to base blocks while my family was traveling in severe winter, piecing prayers in it as they traveled. It seemed like a better thing to do than worry! I have a quilt planned for my son (it’s been on the drawing board for 3 years and I have the fabrics for the top sorted out). I have to work full time so, I always feel like I’m short on time to do the things I love. I’ve made several quilts for each of my grandkids. They are mainly out of my stash of fabric pieces that includes leftovers from my sewing projects, some from my husband’s mother before she passed, and then there are all sorts of things that people have said.. oh you sew, I brought you some fabric. I can never pass up fabric… even ugly fabric.. (no, I’m not sharing my address!) I had some that was super ugly but it made lovely bases for ruffle flower rugs. They wore like iron… hmmm… need to think about making some more of them. Anyway, I love quilts and always have even though I never actually had one until I made one as an adult. I love everyone’s stories about their quilts. My Gram used to say that if she lived long enough she wanted to make a fancy crazy quilt with velvets and such like her grandmother had… but she was never able to do that… so of course it was such a beautiful idea, I added it to my list and I hope I actually get it accomplished for both of us.

  • Reply
    harry adams
    September 21, 2017 at 8:13 pm

    My grandmother (Ma) made everyone of her grandchildren a quilt. These were not the designer quilts but a quilt to keep us warm. Our daughter got a couple of ma’s quilts when my mother died. these were very ragged and she asked her mother to make her some pillows from the good parts. The quilt was lined with old cotton fleece blankets that were worn out. I’m sure the quilt was over 100 years old. I know where I get my reluctance to throw anything away. There has to be a use for it somewhere.
    My father worked in a shirt factory and would bring the sample squares home when they were being thrown out. Ma would just sew these together to make the quilt tops. I still remember one of my quilts having Disney characters on it. The cloth was flannel so they were probably making pajamas. I can bet there was no fire retardant on it either.
    My wife does quilting now the modern way and makes some very pretty quilts. She gives nieces and nephews quilts when they get married, but my guess is they have no real appreciation for them. Neither for the time to make it or the cost.

  • Reply
    September 21, 2017 at 3:42 pm

    Tipper, I enjoyed this and the comments made by others. I’m a quilter; it’s my form of relaxation. 🙂 I like to make scrap quilts rather than ones with fancy designs.

  • Reply
    September 21, 2017 at 1:52 pm

    Like Vann Helms, we call the thicker, heavier quilts “comforters”. They are usually made with larger “patches” which had often been “squared up” and used heavier fabric such as corduroy or wool. The other distinction was that they were “tied” rather than quilted with some kind of running stitch. About every 3 or 4 inches the needle went down and up leaving about two inches of each end above the top; then the ends were tied off with a square knot or a simple double knot. The next row of knots would be centered in the offset to keep the batting from bunching up in rows.
    Quilts occupy a large space in my memory banks along with embroidery, sewing, cooking, gardening, . . . .
    Thanks to you and all your readers for sharing.
    Another thought – quilting and most older home crafts go along with the idea of “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without”. My Granny (great-grandmother) would sew together long bias strips from worn out clothing and crochet them into rugs (rather than braid them). She often chose colors carefully to make lovely patterns although she would make “hodge podge” rugs with no pattern in mind. Everyone for 3 generations down had at least one of her rugs. The one time she went to visit her son in Tennessee (at that time it took 7 to 10 days to get there from the tip o’Texas – varied with road conditions) she immediately noticed that none of her rugs were in use. When questioned, my aunt said she was carefully preserving them in special paper in the attic. Granny was no one’s fool and knew how hot the attic could get plus there were many 4 footed, furry visitors up there. I think that is the one and only time I ever heard of my Granny displaying any anger, however well contained. She let my aunt know that if she wasn’t going to use the rugs she could give them back and Granny would give them to someone who would make use of them! The rugs came down from the attic and were placed in the kitchen and beside beds but we suspect that after Granny left they returned to the attic. They were not discussed again.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    September 21, 2017 at 12:07 pm

    I hadn’t thought of Pansie Deal in years but multiple mentions of her bring back some fond memories. When she first began working in Swain County she boarded with my grandparents, Joe and Minnie Casada, and whatever her no doubt considerable skills and book learning, I can virtually guarantee that Grandma taught her a trick or ten in the kitchen.
    She became one of the closest friends of my Aunt Emma Casada Burnett and if I’m not mistaken she had a married sister living in Swain County when she was first employed in the area. Indeed, that may have been why she first came to the region. At any rate, in time she became a beloved figure, a staunch pillar of the community, and someone who epitomized what it means to be a selfless volunteer.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    September 21, 2017 at 11:55 am

    A note of interest, Miss Deal, the Home Demonstration Agent Bill Burnett mentions in his comment was born Pansie Evelyn Deal. She was the daughter of John Deal and Evelyn Scroggs. Her mother’s brother Fred might be a name familiar to you. Yep, that Fred O. Scroggs was her uncle.
    Pansie never married and devoted her entire career to serving the community, mostly in Swain County. She retired early at 55 then spent the rest of her life, as long as she was able, volunteering her services to her community.
    I have a newspaper clipping that mentions Miss Deal would be at the home of Beuna Ammons at Needmore on March 7th, 1950 at 2:00 PM. I was there for that event, I think, but it would be another 7 months before I was born so I doubt anybody noticed me.

  • Reply
    September 21, 2017 at 11:35 am

    After my daddy and mama died, and all my brothers, I became closer to Daddy’s sister and she told me when I was a baby is when mama had a stroke and she and her husband (Tommy Higdon) took care of me for a few months. She said she still had the baby’s blanket and that she’d send it to me. She died before I ever got it and her boy and girl probably don’t know anything about this. I’d like to have this quilt or baby blanket, maybe I’ll contact them to see if they know about anything about this. …Ken

  • Reply
    larry griffith
    September 21, 2017 at 11:30 am

    When our house (burnt) one of the things saved was a school house quilt. This is very precious to my wife. She is a school teacher and it was made by her Mom.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    September 21, 2017 at 11:06 am

    One more thing….I wonder how many ladies have seen the “Postage Stamp” quilt?
    I have been trying to buy one from a lady that she made…She has no children but lots of nieces and nephews…she told me if she ever decided to sell it she would call me…I told her to name her price…if I had to, I would even make payments on it and she could keep it until I paid it off…Yes, I expect it would be very expensive and I knew that…Ha She will probably gift it to her favorite niece, that is her caregiver nowadays but I totally understand…We were glassware antique friends…that is why I offered to buy it from her since she had sold some of her quilts before…
    It hangs to the floor on her double bed…I am sure it has thousands of postage size stamp quilt pieces in it…Just cutting the pieces and stay accurate measurement, time and talent! She said it took years for her to piece it together, also she tried to get different colored and patterned fabric to use in the quilt. She said that alone took a while…(I am sure!)…I know one thing it took nimble fingers to work up and hand sew those small pieces together and probably is priceless…so to speak…It is beautiful….
    Thanks Tipper,

  • Reply
    Janis Sullivan (Jan)
    September 21, 2017 at 10:52 am

    My grandmother made my favorite quilt for me when I graduated from high school. She had 27 grand-children, and she made each one of us a quilt for graduation. Plus the ones she made just to be practical. I have never slept under anything but quilts. How privileged I have been, haven’t I, and blessed!

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    September 21, 2017 at 10:46 am

    I have several quilts made by my Mother and grandmother…I also helped on a few of them in later years. I tend to prefer the old quilting patterns…Squares, triangles, rectangles etc…put together and cut in different sizes to represent items the ladies might see on the farm. Flying geese, Turkey Tracks, Snowball, Fan, Double Wedding Ring, Bow tie, Sewing Spool, Stars and more stars…etc…Of course there are many others. I’ll never forget asking my Granny about an unusual pattern on the back of one of those cotton packages…(free patterns were always on the inside of those quilt batting packages)…
    She said, “That one is a hard one…it’s called “Drunkards Path”…never made that one, and hope never to live it”! So, I always remember that statement about designs they made and loved!
    I sold my Mothers hanging quilting frames…I kept her floor frames…however I doubt that I will ever use any of them. I am more of a lap quilter…quilt as you go person…
    Some quilts I’ve seen at shows nowadays are a feast for the eyes and fabrics hand dyed to fit the purpose…just beautiful and made by highly skilled ladies with wonderful machines to do a lot of the work…
    I was taught to be an expert hand quilter you had to have (at least) a stitch count of eleven (11) stitches per inch. The lady that taught me has quilts in the Smithsonian…I was just lucky enough to get to take one of her classes at one of those artsy things, when I lived in the Secret City!
    There used to be a gorgeous quilt hanging there at the John Campbell school…Do you remember the one…they may have changed it by this time…I loved it…
    Thanks Tipper,
    PS.. I could type about Aunts, Grannies and Mothers quilt stories forever…Exception, when Granny would dry apples in the Fall (up-stairs with cheese cloth stretched on her frames)…they needed to dry quickly for she needed those frames after she would get a quilt pieced…HA

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    September 21, 2017 at 9:26 am

    Momma was a great one for making both quilts and comforters, and Daddy complemented her efforts by making a number of quilt racks. I’m pretty sure that all five of Momma’s grandchildren have one or more quilts as a tangible memory of her love, and now that there are four great grandchildren they will in due course inherit these tokens of abiding family love.
    For my part I find a moment of comfort and time for warm reflection whenever I look at quilts, many of them fashioned in part from Daddy’s ties (he was, unlike his sons, a bit of a sartorial dandy, and in his later years he often bought a tie or two), draped across a rack in the bedroom. They provide visual evidence of the work of my parents’ hands as well as testament to high level of skills respectively as a seamstress and a woodworker.
    Jim Casada
    P. S. Whenever something traumatic or troubling happened, Daddy’s answer was often to purchase a tie. I think the only time Momma ever called me while I was in college–you just didn’t waste money on long distance calls when letters worked perfectly well–was after Daddy had to put his hunting “dog of a lifetime,” Chip, to sleep. Momma wanted to tell me because I was mighty fond of that beagle as well, but she also wanted me to know Daddy was hurting. When she said “He went out and bought three ties after he put old Chip to sleep,” she said all I needed to know about his pain.

  • Reply
    September 21, 2017 at 9:20 am

    I still have a few quilts that were passed down from previous generations. Like yours they are getting a little ragged. It seems like my mother’s generation was more into making Afghanis for decoration rather than functional warmth.

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    September 21, 2017 at 9:07 am

    How long has it been since you’ve seen a quilting frame hung in the ceiling of the living room? My Mom used to keep a quilt in the making almost all the time which was drawn up on four hooks when sh wasn’t working on it. I remember the Home Demonstration Club where all the ladies in the community would get together at different homes and Miss Deals, the Home Demonstration Agent, would meet with them and practice new skills, many of the meeting turned into a Quilting Bee if someone had a Quilt on a frame hung from the ceiling. What was so funny to me was how competitive these ladies were, they would see who could make the neatest stitches and sometime an argument would ensue. This was always in good nature though and it was always looked forward to since it broke the boredom of a fairly mundane lifestyle. It also turned out some beautiful works of Art which kept many a body warm, sometimes for several generations. Many of these works of Art are now being collected and are selling for surprisingly high prices.

  • Reply
    Vann Helms
    September 21, 2017 at 9:01 am

    I still remember the hanging quilt rack in my grandmother’s basement. She worked for awhile in Charlotte at a cotton shirt factory, and was always bringing home scraps of flannel and colorful remnants from t-shirts and pajamas. I still treasure one of her quilts these sixty years later. Her mother was a quilter, as was my other Grandma, and her mother. Worn and frayed, most of the family still has those quilts. I didn’t know what a “comforter” was until we moved to Florida when I was ten. Mama always called the thick quilts “comforts”, and we only had one. I keep it in a plastic bag. It was mostly satin, and that never fared as well as cotton or wool. We always felt special if Mama covered us up with the Comfort.

  • Reply
    eva m. wike
    September 21, 2017 at 8:58 am

    LOVED THE QUILT STORIES! My mother made two quilts for my sister and me WHEN WE HAD OUR DOUBLE WEDDING CEREMONY! ew

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    September 21, 2017 at 8:36 am

    Quilting was a way of life when I was a boy. My paternal Grandma kept a quilt frame suspended in the living room, up near the ceiling in the busy summer.
    My aunts made me a handmade quilt with a quilt square pattern of native birds way back about 40 years ago. And an elderly lady at our church made us one about 20 years ago.
    Quilts are like home cooking. Love is the secret ingredient.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    September 21, 2017 at 8:34 am

    Quilt makers are yrue artists. The beauty and design are a feast for the eyes.

  • Reply
    Ann Applegarth
    September 21, 2017 at 8:33 am

    Yep, I have always slept under quilts, too. I have a summer-weight one and a winter one, both lovely and handmade. It’s good to see that people really use their beautiful quilts. My mother used those that women before her in her family had made. But my Aunt Frances chided Mama because using them would wear them out! Aunt Frances kept here stored away where they wouldn’t fade or fray. Then, one day, all of Aunt Frances’s possessions were destroyed in a fire — including the beautiful quilts that never once kept her warm and cozy. This has been a powerful lesson to me since childhood: use and enjoy your beautiful things!

  • Reply
    Melissa Higginbotham
    September 21, 2017 at 8:18 am

    Both of my parents are from southwest Virginia – a small town in Russell County – Honaker. Both of my grandmothers made quilts. One of my prize possessions is a quilt that was given to me by my Maw-Maw Colley when I married. (That was 35 years ago and I treasure it today.) I have aunts that still quilt and I have done a little myself. These priceless treasures are passed down through our family and loved by all. My brothers and I were all given quilts at special times in our life. My brother, a life time solider, took his quilt all across the world. It was lovingly used in some of the coldest climates you can imagine. Korea, Germany, Saudi just to name a few. At some point in his travels, the quilt was stolen. Not sure why, it was just a pieced quilt of old fabric that would mean nothing to anyone but him. Unfortunately, my grandmother was gone by that time – it can never be replaced. It still hurts all of us to think about it. We all know that a lot of love went in to those old quilts and treasure them to this day. They are like a hug from the past. My quilt from Maw-Maw will be given to my daughter when she marries and I know she will love it just as I have for many, many years.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    September 21, 2017 at 8:04 am

    My grandmother made quilts, mostly in the winter. All of spring, summer, and fall were spent working outside. The outside work consisted of gardening, hay and corn for the cows for winter, any building or repairing of house, barn and out buildings, harvesting and canning wild fruits, harvest and canning from the garden. There was also raising pigs for slaughter. There were also chickens for eggs and slaughter. It was a busy life.
    The winter was sewing aprons , quilting, repairing, bonnets and such. My granny made beautiful quilts of many different designs. All the blankets they had were quilts. There was no such thing a buying a blanket. Granny would tell me the name of all the patterns used in the various quilts she made. Some of the quilts even had embroidery designs in the quilt squares.
    Quilts were the artistic expression of my Grandmother!

  • Reply
    Sue W.
    September 21, 2017 at 5:59 am

    I have a quilt made by my paternal Great-Grandmother Laura Isabel Curry Thompson. She was a Conch, born and raised in Key West, Florida. Rode the train up to Tarpon Springs to be married to my Great Grandfather, Andrew. She lived to 103. We called her Granny. That quilt is quite tattered now, but I would not part with it for love nor money.

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