Saturday, May 7, 2011

Piecing a life together: quilting, the Great (Rural) American Art.

Toad in the Puddle Block

On my recent flight across the country, as I was gazing out the airplane’s window, I looked down on vast stretches of sparsely populated farmland. The ground looked like a big patch-work quilt of browns, greens, and yellows. The scene reminded me of the short story, A Jury of Her Peers by early feminist writer Susan Glaspell. In that story, first published in 1916, the wives of the county’s important officials tag alongside their husbands to visit a murder scene. Apparently, a rural woman has killed her husband, nobody knows how or why. The women discover the causes of this tragedy by observing the details of the first floor of the house (i.e., the kitchen and the parlor), details which only a woman would understand, while the men fail to find any evidence pointing to a possible motive of the crime. In short, the men fail to understand the intricacies of this household's dynamics.

One of the key pieces of evidence the women understand is the quilt the lady of the house worked on. They notice that her quilt had some impeccably pieced squares but, all of a sudden, the work turned shoddy, as if the maker of the quilt had suddenly lost her touch with the quilt — and with reality. The story poignantly shows why rural women, in their solitary and frugal lives, had long embraced the tradition of quilting, used it not only for providing their families with warm blankets at no extra cost, but also for telling stories about their nearly invisible lives.

As a woman who learned knitting and crocheting, embroidered and sewed her own clothes at a very young age, I was intrigued by the importance of quilting to rural American culture as well as in the self-reliance it embodies.

Since time immemorial, rural women had a difficult life, often spent working from dawn till dusk to carve out a meager subsistence living. They did the best they could with very little. Warm blankets were expensive and fabric was scarce. Thus, rural quilts were made for everyday use by rural women out of necessity. Women made quilts from scraps of fabric, discarded clothing, or feed and flour sacks. Thus, the quilt serves as a metaphor for the myriad of ways in which discarded scraps and fragments can be pieced together into something whole, unified, and beautiful. Quilting represents the way that unimportant, trivial, and meaningless things can be made useful and — more importantly — valued.

Alice Walker also used the quilt metaphor in her early story, Everyday Use. Quilting and quilts describe African-American women's lives, which traditional history and literature have often ignored or misrepresented. The quilt in her story represents the passing of one’s maternal legacy onto the next generation by giving a long-treasured quilt to one’s daughters.

Women that worked on a quilt by themselves created an heirloom for their children and usually signed them. These quilts were a source of internal pride for rural women, but as typical of women of 19th century America, such as Aunt Jane, they did not consider a quilt a piece of art. The cultural norms of that era regarding modesty would have frowned upon any praise showered on a woman for either the object or the skill in creating a fine quilt. These social conventions of modesty inhibited expressions of pride.

Quilt making was slow and labor intensive, often taking months to complete. Rural women waited patiently for a stash of little scraps of fabric to accumulate, for them to make something out of nothing but a torn shirt, a discarded flour sack. Quilting manifests the slow passage of time, the monotony of days, years, and decades spent on the farm. Quilting was often a very solitary pursuit, but sometimes it was the only means for socialization with other women, called a quilting circle or quilting bee.

At the turn of the 19th century, Eliza (Lida) Calvert Hall penned a best-selling collection of short stories entitled Aunt Jane of Kentucky. American readers fell in love with the reoccurring central character of these stories: Aunt Jane, an old spinster woman living in a rural southern town who spent time ricollectin’ about the domestic nature of women’s lives to her young women visitors. Aunt Jane told them stories about quilts:
I've always had the name of being a good housekeeper, but when I'm dead and gone there ain't anybody going to think of the floors I've swept and the tables I've scrubbed, and the old clothes I've patched, and the stockings I've darned. But when one of my grandchildren or great-grandchildren sees one of these quilts, they'll think 'bout Aunt Jane and I'll know I ain't forgotten.
Eliza Calvert Hall, Aunt Jane of Kentucky (Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1995 reprint ed., at 78). Rural women could relate to Aunt Jane’s wisdom and saw themselves, too, as capable and creative persons who merely lacked opportunity to be valued at their true worth. As one of Aunt Jane’s guests says:
I looked again at the heap of quilts. An hour ago they had been patchwork, and nothing more. But now! The old woman's words had wrought a transformation in the homely mass of calico and silk and worsted. Patchwork? Ah, no! It was memory, imagination, history, biography, joy, sorrow, philosophy, religion, romance, realism, life, love, and death; and over all, like a halo, the love of the artist for his work and the soul's longing for earthly immortality.
Id. at 82.

Quilts from the last century had very rural names like Corn and Beans, Toad in A Puddle, and often explored biblical themes, such as the Star of Bethlehem. As Patricia Mainardi argues, quilting is the Great American Art, a women’s art, but, also, a very rural form of art. Again, the feminine and the rural are intertwined and forever linked.


Lisa R. Pruitt said...

Thanks for this lovely post. I learned years ago to value the quilts passed down from my grandmothers and great grandmothers, and I just this week came across a few I had put into storage 9 years ago when I moved into my current home. Among them were a quilt made by my great grandmother and the last one my paternal grandmother made me--about a quarter century ago. The latter one features many pieces of fabric from dresses she made me as a child, and so--even though it is not very artful, following no pattern--it is of the utmost sentimental value.

When I was in Newton County a few weeks ago, it is not surprising that I found myself in a quilt shop--one where each artisan's name is shown on her quilt, along with the pattern. These quilts are the "real deal," made lovingly by hand by women in the community.

lauren said...

Thanks for the interesting post. There is something amazing about flying in a plane and looking at the patterns that the land creates. Also, I really love the idea of stories and culture being passed through generations in the form of patchwork. And it seems to be global.

One of the first times I remember noticing quilting was while driving through Charm, Ohio, a predominantly Amish town in rural Ohio. The intricacies and craftsmanship blew me away. And the patience it would take to create the pieces, I couldn't imagine. My mother and grandmother have since taken on quilting, and recently my mom made a beautiful quilt out of scraps of fabric that we got in Japan. It's turned out to be a great way to remember trip. And last summer, while I was in Cairo, there were markets dedicated almost entirely to quilts, many with Islamic designs and featuring common folktales.