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I am a quilter living in Woodbridge, Suffolk who has made quilts since I was a teenager. I also ring bells! Both are great British traditions....I will try to feature some of my antique Welsh and Durham quilts, the quilts I make myself, my quilting activities and also some of my bellringing achievements. Plus as many photos as I can manage. NB: Double click on the photos to see greater detail, then use back button to return to the main page.

Sunday 14 October 2012

Southern American Quilts

While I was at the QuiltFest 2012 in Jacksonville, I was lucky enough to catch a lecture by Teddy Pruett, a quilt historian and appraiser from Lake City, Florida.  I was very interested to hear her talk about her research into the characteristics of quilts made in the Deep South of America. This was followed by a show of quilts.

I have agreed to contribute to the  BQSG blog - hopefully, about once a week - so for a more complete  report on this topic, click here to go to the BQSG blog:

 Prior to the Civil War, esquisite quilts had been made by wealthy Southern women or their slaves. However, the South was ravaged by the Civil War and became desperately poor until WWII. Although the South was a quarter of the US land area, incomes were the lowest in the United States. This means that  quilts made in the South are utility quilts, made from recycled materials with a poor standard of workmanship. Filling was a thick layer of locally picked cotton, and the backing was usually bleached and dyed feed sacks. Quilting was very roughly done, due to the thickness of the cotton wadding. No bindings are seen, just the backing brought forward to the front.

You may be wondering why quilts were needed in the South, which has the reputation of being so very warm. The truth is that the winters could be very cold - in addition, the houses or shacks were very poorly built, had no insulation and were built up on bricks. Warm winter bedding was vital under such conditions.

Southern quilts are not made from new fabric or new dressmaking offcuts, They are made from the less worn portions of discarded clothing. Southern quilts also have very odd placements of fabric colours. In this quilt, the blocks are the same but look very different due to the variable placement of colours.

This quilt is Teddy's oldest, and is an unlovely quilt - made of bleached and dyed feed sacks. Tobacco sacks, measuring 3 x 7 inches, are also used in the patchwork.
After the Civil War, fabric was not available, so homespun fabrics and rewoven fabrics were seen.

Nine patch showing the extremely variable placement of fabrics.

This pattern is known as Honeymoon Cottage - and was a nationally published pattern. But here the quilter has made the pattern very poorly, as this is what the standard of quilt making was like in the South - a culture of poverty and a scarcity of time and materials. Scottish Irish people settled this area and gave the area its culture and manner of speaking, quite different from the more Germanic settlers of the North.

Patterns with circles and points are common - but rather carelessly made in Southern quilts, as seen here.

Home dying of cottons was normal, as fabric was recycled and not bought new for quilts. Backings were usually home dyed feed sacks and are usually a brown colour. Here, the red has stood up well (unlike some reds that are fugative and turn tan) but the green dyed fabric has faded badly. The small square is one piece that is from a different source and has not faded.

Sun Bonnet Sue was known as Dutch Doll in the South. This quilt is a very odd looking Dutch Doll - and may be an Afro American quilt although this is only speculation. Southern applique quilts were simplified patterns with huge pieces.

Other characteristics of Southern quilts - many have a triple sashing, which is not used as an outer border. Fan quilting is very common as it was easy to do and also easy to resolve in the middle of the quilt. As the quilts were made of recycled fabrics and were used constantly, they wore badly. Recovered quilts are therefore comon.

Also seen are quilts made from tobacco sacks - these pieces are 3 x 7 inches and were commonly  made into patterns such as rail fence and streak of lightning.

I found this a very interesting talk; it reminded me of the Welsh quilters who used what they had in a manner that was known to them, in an environment of poverty. It reminds us that quilts are a reflection of the prevailing culture of the time in which they were made.


  1. Such an interesting blog Pippa, thank you so much for sharing all that information.

  2. Very informative - I was one that had always wondered why the quilts from the South were so thick. Thanks for sharing what you learned.

  3. Interesting post Pippa and very enlightening .

  4. Much of what you saw were rural southern quilts...there don't represent all quilts from the south. I've documents many southern quilts that are finely constructed.

  5. YankeeQuilter is correct. "The South" is a huge area, with so many regional differences it is hazardous to generalize about it as a whole, even about the rural sections. Many fine quilts with perfect geometry came out of the so-called "backward" and cash-poor regions like the mountains of West Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Georgia. both before and after the Civil War. And because of the many rivers in the Lower South, access to fabric was much more readily available than is commonly understood when the interior regions were still pioneering. Long after other regions turned to manufactured woolen blankets for winter warmth, much of the South retained a preference for quilts, Thus we find many, many utility quilts, sometimes stuffed with one or two earlier quilts. Yet even those often have well-made tops. And even the humblest usually have some pieced design. The red, white, and green "Rocky Mountain Road" pictured above is a pattern that is distinctively "Southern." Probably made at the end of the 19th century, it seems well-pieced and is quilted in the "fan" quilting favored in the South for quilts made for "everyday use." I also feel constrained to observe that both before and after the Civil War, most Southern homes were not "shacks" with wind whistling through them. The boundless pine woods of the region always made sound housing affordable, whether log cabin or milled lumber structures. For those interested in southern quiltmaking and quilts, I suggest "Georgia Quilts" (Weinraub), "North Carolina Quilts," (Robertson) and "Lone Stars: A Legacy of Texas Quilts, 1836-1936"(Bresenhan) as books that represent the diversity of quilts in the American South. To see the work of one typical rural quilter from a farming family who quilted from before the Civil War through WWII, see "Legacy: the Story of Talula Bottoms and Her Quilts" (Burdick).

    1. Thanks so very much for balancing the perspective of the original post. Having lived in the south the majority of my life, and having a southern heritage which includes generations of women who rightly took pride in their exquisite handwork, I felt confused by the generalizations of poverty and low quality of technique and design. I do not doubt that the veracity of the original post, but the broad characterization felt demeaning... Tho i imagine that was not the intent.... Perhaps the point had less to do with characterizing the South as it was to highlight characteristics that can be loosely associated with certain social & economic conditions, but even then i have seen magnificent examples of glorious workmanship and design.... Even those in great poverty can produce glorious work. I do not mean any disrespect to the author, so i hope my post does not offend. Thanks again.

  6. Many thanks for your considered response GAye, which will help others fo follow up on this topic. Of course I was just reporting in my own way another persons research - and an hour's talk is a very short time to put all details across, as I well know. I think that the speaker did acknowledge that she was speaking of rural quilts and that coastal and city areas had a different tradition. And I think we have to acknowledge that the South was a very poor area by any standards and yes, there were a lot of people who did live in "cracker shacks". There were a lot of heads nodding in the audience at that! So lots of different experiences and opinions in the South. Thanks for your comments.

  7. Pippa, I hope you will not be offended if I question parts of what you passed along from others. The rural South was cash-poor both before and after the Civil War. It was a rural, bartering region and its economy cannot be judged by cash on hand. Aside from isolated regions where land was poor, poverty was not so grinding or general as is commonly believed. First, the inland South was still pioneering when the War began. A tremendous wave of migration from the seaboard states followed the War of 1812, and Jackson's removal of the Indian threat in Alabama and Florida opened up what is called the Old Southwest. Land Lotteries offering free land opened, and war veterans who had taken land in the absence of money as payment for war services flooded into the area. Cotton and tobacco provided needed cash. War was devastating personally, but once foraging troops were out of the area, people had food because they grew their own gardens, had cattle, hogs, sheep, and goats for meat and milk. Second, after the War, the great timber barons like Jay Gould brought work into the areas of the great pine forests of the South. The timber/lumber industry provided cash to supplement the farms. It also led numbers of people westward into Louisiana and East Texas, where they found yet better, newer land, prospered, sent their children to school. During the Depression, artists were paid by the Works Progress Administration to document poverty in parts of the region. And that's what they documented. The same was true of Dust Bowl residents. They did not depict the general South, but only that which they were assigned to depict. So the picture their work presents is skewed. I'm sure there were "shacks" (BTW The term "cracker" is as insulting as "redneck" and "nigger" and denigrates the people to whom it is assigned). Yet I submit "shacks" were atypical in lowland South. The access to timber on one's own property and to mills in close proximity made housing affordable. The houses might have been more or less "fancy," but most were soundly built---but they were built for a near tropical region, where summer ventilation was more important than winter cold. High ceilings, lots of windows, and large hallways built specifically for summer ventilation---this was the Southern building model. Most were heated by fireplaces (again, the abundance of wood made heating costs nil) . So Southerners who live in tightly sealed and centrally heated homes of today naturally shiver when they recall the cold bedrooms of such houses. But the bedrooms of most mansions of the time were equally cold. Memory is deceptive. I think what matters most is fact, and since the 1980s substantial scholarhsip by cultural geographers; architects who study venacular housing; historians studying the timber industry, economic history, political history and other aspects of the Southern past; and cultural anthropologists have offered information that can balance memory. I write this not because I wish to be a contrarian, but because I think such generalizations hinder the serious study of Southern quilts. By encouraging an unsubstantiated generalization, they discourage our exploring the quilts of the region as they should be explored, with minds open to what we find. Having spent my life studying and teaching the literature and culture of the South, I know the negative effects such stereotypes have on the advancement of learning. The dearth of critical studies of Southern quiltmaking is mainly a result of these. We wonder at people who perpetuate the unsupportable tale of UGRR quilts. We must exercise the critical attitude we recommend to others. I submit this only because I would like to see the knowledge of our regional quilts advance. Thank you for considering my views.

  8. I can only re-iterate that I attended what I thought was a well presented and enjoyable hour's lecture, and reported in good faith what I had heard. If I have touched on some raw nerve felt by others, I apologise. This North-South thing seems to be a can of worms!!I was brought up in New Jersey and although I visited Florida many times, cannot pretend to know the area well. However, I do feel that everyone is entitled to their own opinions, and would like to draw a line under this now.I am an academic, but of science, not quilt history. I will not be publishing any other comments as this blog is really to do with British quilts and I only presented the US quilts as I felt there was something to be learned from seeing quilts from another area. Thanks to everyone for their views. Pippa