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Appalachian Hand-Quilters

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I recently dropped in for “Hand-Sewing Day with the Quilting Department” at the Appalachian Arts Craft Center. Heading south from Kentucky, it’s a mile east of Interstate 75, off the exit to historic Norris Dam, in the heart of East Tennessee. When I approached the cedar-sided building with the painting of a quilt block on one side and a generous front porch, I was hoping to find dozens of busy quilters.

I followed the sign from the attractive arts and crafts store on the main level, down the wide wooden stairs, to a basement brightly lit with fluorescent lights. Gathered at the corner of a large work table were two senior women, busily stitching. Joann Doub and Bonnie Matthews explained that the weekly quilting group had dwindled in recent years, and that a third quilter was absent because of illness. They graciously swapped stories with me about shared interests in quilting and how it has evolved. When I explained that I treasured some of my great-grandmother’s hand-sewn quilts, they invited me to bring them in sometime for an informal showing.

The well-stocked basement is where quilters share work space with weavers and potters. Pottery, off in its own room; this main room mostly filled with weaving looms. To save space, a wooden frame for full-sized quilts hangs near the ceiling, anchored with a system of pulleys. The women explain that the frame holds a vintage quilt top with the Sunbonnet Sue or Dutch Doll pattern that an individual brought them for help completing. Today, though, the women are sitting elbow to elbow at the table to finish a bright pink baby quilt. They take tiny hand stitches in the fine cotton fabric, securing it to the layers of batting and fabric below. The lines of thread are precisely aligned, yet a machine will never touch this project. When the women finish hand-stitching every curve, flower and heart, they’ll offer it for sale in the shop upstairs, keeping the proceeds after paying a commission to the Center.

My hosts are understandably skeptical about my presence, since I did not bring any hand sewing to do alongside them on this day. They agree to let me photograph them working, as long as I don’t show their faces. I try to respectfully inquire about the state of quilting, given examples like the dwindling attendance at these weekly gatherings. The women explain that quilting guilds are available in several nearby towns. They try to convince me that a local quilting group meeting in the evenings has a thriving, multi-generational community of people involved. The numbers of looms in this basement filled with half-finished projects indicate a thriving interest in that craft, as well.

Given the humble beginnings of Appalachian quilting, and the creation of what was once called the Community Craft Center to help people promote their arts and crafts, I wonder if groups like this have any real economic and cultural impact these days. Doub and Matthews, who’ve each been quilting for at least 20 years, dispel any hopes I had of finding an economic renaissance in American textiles. Not only is quilting rarely the source of much income, but they understandably don’t purchase any more raw materials made in the USA. They say they typically must pay around $7 to $8 per yard for good cotton fabric, which is all made abroad. Fortunately some purchaser will be able to afford the excellent quality of detailing to be found in well-designed, hand-stitched masterpieces like the ones these women create. “I’ve always enjoyed working with fabrics. It’s my art form,” shares Doub. Matthews says she doesn’t want to stop quilting because it keeps the arthritis from taking over her hands. “Keeps me moving, “ she says cheerfully. Upstairs, where the artisans offer their wares for sale, another veteran quilter named Patty Ashworth is stitching fabric on a small hoop while she takes her turn working behind the cash register. “You’re not making a living, “ she reiterates. Yet well-established hand quilters like her have enough of a following that they can earn extra household income.

The center’s director, Liz McGeachy, is cautiously guarded when I try to ask more questions about funding for the Center and local economic impact. I tell her that I’ve read the Center’s historical notes about how it began with government seed money in the early 70s to fight poverty among local people. I sense that she’s concerned I’ll mischaracterize the proud, middle-class artisans and write an uninformed description of modern Appalachian society. McGeachy wants to clear up my misconception that public funds run the Center today. She says although there has been some grant money from time to time, funding now is mostly from class tuition, membership fees, and shop sales. She describes the Center now as a cooperative that helps educate and promote the arts. She notes that most artisans are involved for the sake of the art and to socialize. She thinks it’s rare that anyone using the Center these days is truly living in poverty, yet she confirms that the sale of quality wares does provide members with some supplemental income. Membership and classes are offered on a sliding scale for those who can’t afford the standard rates.

While the front porch speaks to country living, the shop’s interior offers a modern conversation about traditional crafts. While some artisans use age-old patterns and techniques like the women that I met downstairs, others put a contemporary twist on their creations, in the name of art. All items sold in the store must be made by local residents and be accepted through a jury process. The Center’s guidelines call for products made with natural materials, and nothing made from a kit. Some machine stitched quilts are accepted, and many are original works of modern art. The shop’s offerings include intricate hand-made jewelry, high-end woven items, origami and glasswork. It’s evident that members are trying to appeal to the most affluent of tastes.

These days, the most touching examples of how handcrafts can cushion the rough edges of poverty are not necessarily on display. When I ask about reasons for quilting, one of the women gives me examples of charity work that she and others have been involved in. Doub tells of an effort to give single mothers a baby quilt as a tangible sign of encouragement. When I ask the Center’s director about this subject a second time, she tells me about grant-supported classes for teaching teenagers in a group home with at-risk pregnancy and other crisis situations. Retired community organizer and expert weaver Pat Bing has spent some time teaching those classes. Bing explains that when funding covered transporting teens to the Center, they could learn skills like weaving on a large loom or a pottery project from start to finish.

With less funding, the teachers must go to the students, adapting with smaller projects like woven belts, origami and beading. She says another teacher shows students how to make pottery, then fires it for them back at the Center. Bing explains the emotional challenges of teaching these students who don’t necessarily want to be in the class. “These are young people who’ve had difficulties, “ she explains as she describes the need to be flexible and patient with the troubled teens. She has given an uncooperative girl the option to take supplies back to her room and finish the project later. She doesn’t push for details of what’s worrying the students, but she offers a kind word and maybe a hug. ”I think you just reach out and try to in some way make a connection.”

The Center stands just a few yards down the road and across the street from the green fields of the Museum of Appalachia. Although separate, these two entities still share common interests, years after Museum founder John Rice Irwin donated the land where the modern Appalachian Arts Craft Center stands. Irwin has done extensive research on the area and showcases items like quilts and looms within their historical context. His daughter, Elaine Meyer, who serves as the Museum’s Executive Director, says, “I think they complement each other very well.” Because of the interest in Appalachian culture, local artisans know that fall is an ideal time to be showcasing their creations. They anticipate that tourists will be stopping by on the way to and from the world-famous Homecoming celebration at the Museum down the road. Those tourists will be disappointed if they’re looking for some kind of stereotypical Appalachian grandma rocking on the porch. Whether on a busy fall day or any other time of year, the Center is quietly enriching lives in its own creative way.

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