West Virginia Quilts and Quiltmakers: Story of state’s heritage told in design

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ATHENS, Ohio – Tucked away in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, preserved for generations, handmade bed quilts are windows into the past.

In 1983, three West Virginia county extension agents discussed the need to locate and document their state’s historic quilts. Mary Nell Godbey, Margaret Meador, and Mary Lou Schmidt joined with other concerned women to found the West Virginia Heritage Quilt Search.

The search focused on documenting quilts made in West Virginia before 1940, which marked the end of a fertile period in American quilt history and the beginning of a decline in quiltmaking that would continue until the 1970s. Ultimately, the search registered more than 4,000 quilts.

Now the story of the search and of the quilts they found has become the basis for a new book.

West Virginia Quilts and Quiltmakers: Echoes from the Hills, written by Fawn Valentine, is now available from the Ohio University Press. It has been published in association with the West Virginia Heritage Quilt Search.

Valentine, who lives in rural Monroe County, W.Va., has written extensively on quilts.

The book includes 159 color photographs of selected quilts, with maps showing where they were made, a database analysis of the statewide survey, and the oral histories of descendants of quiltmakers.

Valentine offers an original perspective on the dominant Scotch-Irish design aesthetic that provided the inspiration for these one-of-a-kind works of regional folk art.

The book also traces other peoples and heritages reflected in quilts, including African-American, Welsh, and German.

“Every quilt tells a story,” said Valentine. “With her quilt, the quiltmaker recorded the circumstances of her world, her recourse to design vocabularies, and to material goods.”

West Virginia quilts resemble others made in the the Appalachian region south of the Mason-Dixon line. However, the quilt search identified several unique designs.

One is a folk pattern known as Farmer’s Delight or Farmer’s Fancy, which features a circular pieced block. A design found in the southern part of the state employed a zigzag called Fencerow, after old split-rail fences. A fondness for Crazy Quilts, made of random pieces of fabric, recycled clothes, and feed sacks (and eventually even doubleknit polyester), melded with the Log Cabin pattern into a hybrid style at the turn of the nineteenth century.

The oldest West Virginia quilt in the book was made in 1790, but, overall, only two percent of the registered quilts were made before 1860. Pre-Civil War quilts were made by prosperous women who could afford luxury fabrics. After the war, cloth and thread became more available.

One of the most historic documented quilts was made in 1875 of Civil War uniforms. Louisa Bunten’s pattern – made from her husband’s Union Army uniforms – features unusual colors and large, u-shaped blocks.

A similar heritage is represented by the crazy quilt made in 1920 by Margaret Ruble from her son-in-law’s World War I Army blankets; however, her pattern is strikingly artistic, resembling an abstract painting.

Quilt searchers documented an intricate circular-pattern quilt made by an African-American quiltmaker, Jane Jones, who died in 1956. Unfortunately, a year after it was photographed, a house fire destroyed the quilt.

Perhaps the saddest story in the book involves “Della’s Quilt,” which Adaline Delila Carter made in 1884 for her hope chest. She died at age 19, however, leaving her family her memory and a remarkable applique quilt in a bold plume design.

Family quilts, said Valentine, are symbols of bloodlines reaching across decades and generations.

West Virginia Quilts and Quiltmakers is available from local booksellers, or on-line through Amazon.com. It may also be ordered prepaid from the Ohio University Press, UC Distribution Center, 11030 S. Langley Ave., Chicago, IL 60628, or 800-621-2736. It is available in either cloth for $60 or in paper at $29.95, plus $3.50 shipping and handling.

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