September 4, 2020 Susan Harber, The Daily News Journal
I have always been fascinated by quilting as an artistic expression in Rutherford County. Both my grandmother Emily Johns and great-grandmother Helen Johns of Smyrna hand-quilted all of their lives. The historical value of these treasures is highly valued as a slice of our heritage and culture of an earlier time and place. “The Quilts of Tennessee,” an excellent book written by Bets Ramsey and Merikay Waldvogel, highlights a few of the primitive county quilts on record we will explore today.
Some of the earliest quilting included soldiers of the Middle Ages, who wore padded and quilted coats and hoods under their armor. Moreover, Dutch and English colonists brought quilts to America to protect themselves from severe cold of New England winters.
Before 1800, women in Rutherford County were existing within a hard frontier lifestyle. Quilt making was often their only joy and comfort after a hard day of sweat and toil. Quilts were created at the time for function, and these determined quilters were creative with their skills.
The original quilts in the state were wholecloth and medallion chintzwork, while most were hand-tied. By 1800, the patchwork blocks replaced patterns of the 18th century. The blocks progressed smaller in dimension with more variety of designs.
Antiquated quilts were utilized for warmth and utility. Middle Tennessee quilters tended to use darker colors on hand for their makeshift bedcovers. With a lack of fabric, quilts were often made from men’s pants, cotton feed sacks, ties, tobacco sacks, table linens, worn-out dresses, and political ribbons. Cotton from farms in Rutherford County were used as a filler. Tattered quilts were adept for padded bedsprings or positioned on a wagon bottom. They were also used for stuffing insulation and for covering food and farm implements.
By 1830, fancy quilts evolved for home bedding and for brides. Best quilts were reserved as a showcase for special occasions. Preceding the Civil War, quilters were enormously gifted. Hand-quilting was a honed art for a new bride to master for her own home. These young women often had a Hope Chest with a dozen quilt tops awaiting their newfound expertise.
Before 1840, English Broderie Perse was a popular quilt in our county. Yet, by the mid-19th century, the majority of quilts were pieced in multiple Star patterns. The most popular pattern to promote Christian faith was Star of Bethlehem.
In the year 1840, textiles were available to women in a consistent manner; and quilting became quite popular. Before that time, quilters stitched by daylight from May until November instead of quilting by candlelight in the evenings.
From 1870-1910, quilts were made of silk, velvet, brocade and heavy embroidery to proudly feature the innovations of experienced quilters. In the Depression-era of the 1930s, the most recognizable fabric in the county was the heavy-threaded feed sacks.
Resources were depleted during the Civil War, and quiltmaking was on a lesser scale in Rutherford County. While Northern states supplied nearly 250,000 quilts to Union soldiers, the Southern quilters were faced with blockades and strong limitations. The process was near impossible to obtain sewing tools, fabric, and cards for preparing quilt batting. A few scrap quilts were stitched for necessity during these turbulent times. Many existing quilts were torn for bandages and used as bedrolls and saddle blankets. They were also repurposed into clothing and signal flags. In Rutherford County, some women covered their cabin doors for safety with quilts that were once used as bedding. Quilts also shielded crops from locusts and utilized as a shroud to bury the dead during the dreary days of the Civil War.
Both Sam Davis’ mother Jane and his grandmother were excellent quilters. These women stitched a special quilt for him in 1838 that is recorded within his boyhood home in Smyrna.
Mary High Prince of Bedford County stitched a Cherry Basket Quilt from 1863-1864. The pieced quilt of cotton and linen was created into one-inch squares. Pokeberry ink identified the names of friends, who assisted as makers of the quilt, and two poems were inscribed on the pattern. A raffle was placed in motion; yet, the quilt was later hidden during Union looting.
Mary, a Confederate spy, was engaged to a fellow spy, who was caught and hung in Murfreesboro. She drove a wagon to the site of his execution to cut down his body and bury him. Mary’s granddaughter Emeline Gist inherited the priceless Cherry Basket quilt. At age 70, Mary pieced a pillow from scraps and dresses she wore during the Civil War.
Stay near and we will soon peruse a ‘Part 2’ of historical vintage quiltmaking within an evolving Rutherford County in the 19th and 20th centuries.