North Carolina Quilts

North Carolina’s quilts are as diverse as its people and its geography. Quiltmaking during the state’s long history evolved from a leisure pastime of privileged women, to an activity of women of the yeoman, business, and professional classes, to a necessity adopted by poorer women. It continued on a limited basis into the 1970s for those who took pleasure in the process or were interested in making a traditional product. Today it has once more expanded the tradition and the process to begin taking its place as a recognized art form.
In the beginning the wives and daughters of planter and merchant families expressed their skill and worth in fine needlework, and their station in life allowed them to afford fine imported or home-manufactured fabrics. Later, women of severely limited means found quiltmaking an economic alternative to purchasing expensive manufactured bedding. In all cases, many have used their fabric with artistic skill and craftsmanship.
Many of these North Carolina women have had little in common socially but, as women, shared the common threads of family pride, the risks of childbirth, the distress of widowhood, and the anguish of sending their men off to war. Quiltmaking has been one of their enduring creative expressions, one of their few opportunities to make undisputed choices: their artistry in cloth.
The earliest quilts documented in North Carolina include some made around the turn of the nineteenth century. Research into wills and inventories reveals that there were earlier quilts, which often represented considerable value, but these apparently have not survived. Quilts of this period were more often made for decorative purposes than for utility. Though made with thin batts, which held little warmth, they were often signed by their makers—to signify pride and worth—and have survived many generations carefully preserved as treasured heirlooms. A small number are all-over quilted, or “whitework,” quilts on plain cloth, but the earliest quilts documented in any significant numbers were made with appliqués of imported chintz, a favored style of printed material. Quite often these earliest quilts were made in conjunction with a bride’s trousseau. Diaries mention quilting parties as festive social occasions—a tradition of “visiting” that continues today.
A woman would often work alone to create the pieced or appliquéd top of a quilt but would choose to complete the actual task of quilting with friends and relatives. In 1855 Annie Darden of Hertford County wrote in her diary on 6 November: “I put my bedquilt in. Tis very tedious to quilt but very pretty.” With the help of friends and daily, day-long quilting sessions this particular quilt was finished on 10 November.[i]

Sometimes these social quilting events became landmarks in the lives of individuals. Thelma M. Smith of Robersonville can recall one such happening in her family’s history: “My grandmother Barbara told me that it was at Aunt Smithy and Thomas Wooten’s two-story, pre–Civil War home that she met her husband-to-be. It was at a quilting-wood-cutting party. She was standing at the head of the stairs (a back hall stairs), and he was at the foot of the stairs. I perceived from Granny that it was a prophetic moment. John Moses Mewborn and Barbara Ann Fields were married 21 January 1874.” A notable surprise occurred at another of Aunt Smithy’s quilting sessions: “Broadus Polk [a pseudonym] was plowing in a field nearby. He was wearing his long shirt without his overalls. He stopped to go to the house for a drink of water from the well. Suddenly, realizing ladies had gathered for a quilting, he apologized for himself. ‘I’m so ashamed,’ he said. He pulled up his shirt and covered his face”—never thinking of the consequences.
A new creative surge in quiltmaking came in the 1850s with the availability of cloth manufactured in-state and chemical dyes. The establishment of railroads affected the amount and variety of goods available. Peddlers and trade wagons brought merchandise into the remotest regions of the state. Though the Civil War brought a time of privation, quilting activity continued, partly to help time pass more swiftly when a husband or beau was off to war. Quilts were sometimes hidden away with other valuables when enemy troops passed through.
The great majority of quilts made up to and beyond the turn of this century in North Carolina were constructed of solid rather than printed fabrics—a reflection of what was available from local manufacturers. Quite often cloth was dyed at home. Color schemes for quilts generally involved a very limited palette. Thread used for quilting matched the fabric pieces. A separate, straight-of-the-grain binding was added to finish the edges of the quilt, rather than bringing the backing around to the front. Plain unbleached domestic, in some areas called “factory cloth,” was used for a backing. Today this would be generally known as unbleached muslin, but in some areas it is still referred to as “homespun,” probably because of its resemblance to home-woven cloth.
Looms and spinning wheels were part of many households. Weaving cloth was part of a woman’s responsibilities. On 15 January 1860 a young woman named Hittie proudly wrote to her sister in Franklin, Macon County: “I have wove over a hundred yds of cloth since I was married which will be a year the 3rd of Feb have quilted one quilt since I returned and made fringe for all four of my counterpanes and done a good deal of sewing besides.”[ii] Because early North Carolina mills spun thread that was readily available to home weavers and had an even texture, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish home-loomed and factory-produced cloth in quilts.
With the rebuilding of the railways and the expansion of mill and manufacturing activity after the Civil War, more and more women were able to buy fabrics to make quilts. What had once been fashionable in only the wealthiest classes grew to include others who now had access to, and cash available for, machine-made fabric. At the same time, it became less fashionable for wealthy women to make bed quilts. Their areas of interest remained decorative and by 1880 followed the national trend towards making time-consuming, nonutilitarian crazy quilts of silk and velvet patches embellished with fancy stitching. Since the population was mainly rural, working, farm women, this type of quilt was not produced in great numbers.
More often than not when a nineteenth-century quilt was presented for documentation its present owner was quite certain of who made the quilt, but only in rare instances knew the name of the pattern.
Almost totally absent in the survey were examples of template-pieced patterns associated with English tradition, pictorial quilts, or quilts with political themes. Nevertheless current issues crept into the quiltmaking in less tangible ways. Annie Darden’s diary entry for 19 March 1861, for example, seems to reflect not the quilt pattern but her thoughts on the war that had recently commenced: “I have finished all the squares for my quilt. I think I shall call it my disunion quilt.”[iii]

In the last twenty-five years of the nineteenth century quiltmaking became commonplace in middle-class farm families. Inexpensive cloth was readily available and scraps from home sewing were used for patchwork. Often the blocks of these quilts were unified in design by sashing and borders of fabrics specially purchased for the purpose. After 1885 there was a definite decline in the number of fabric-extravagant and finely quilted appliqué quilts. Most quilts were now made to be used. Patterns were passed along to friends, and more came from the women’s magazines and farm periodicals that many families now subscribed to. Pieced patterns in quilts from this period reflect that trend.
If quiltmaking had entered a practical and utilitarian phase, it nonetheless evidenced good workmanship, design, and color balance. As time progressed, blocks became simpler. For farm wives, who had little leisure time and many children to keep warm, intricate, time-consuming quilting designs were not practical. The signatures or initials that had attested to the maker’s pride on earlier “show” quilts were no longer applied. These quilts were used, became worn, and were recycled into other quilts, found use as covers for the tobacco wagon, or were replaced by blankets when families could afford them.
For the most part, quilts made by black North Carolinians that were documented by the project date from the present century. Fewer seem to have survived; perhaps, due to the economically deprived status of the state’s black population, quilts were more often used until they were worn out. Quilts by black women represent a wide range of patterns. Many are indistinguishable from quilts made by white women, but some show certain distinctive characteristics: an affinity for linear or strip designs, a mélange of patterns within the same quilt, the use of compositional elements in a variety of sizes, and a preference for bright colors. In these quilts randomness often becomes a seemingly purposeful design element. Evidence suggests that this distinctive style reflects a chosen Afro-American aesthetic tradition.[iv]
The period around the First World War marked another chapter in the evolution of the North Carolina quilt. Found and recycled materials used for quiltmaking became more common. Wool suiting samples, used clothing, tobacco, sugar, and feed sacks, and sewing scraps became the most likely fabric sources. Some women still emulated the Victorian fashion and made crazy quilts with fancy embroidery, though now out of wool and cotton instead of silks and velvets. The mainstream of quiltmaking, however, had now reached a segment of society that had little to begin with. Often of tenant or subsistence farming circumstances, or living off the small wages of the mill workers, these quiltmakers learned to “make do.” Quilts of plainer blocks, string-pieced (made of long, narrow fabric scraps sewn to a foundation, often of paper), or of irregular shapes and stuffed with batts of coarse cotton, old blankets, old cloth, burlap, or recycled cloth that had covered tobacco plant beds, were commonplace. Many were quilted together with coarse stitches, in fan or elbow patterns, often using the thread carefully salvaged from the opening and dismantling of feed sacks. Often the backings were four feed sacks opened into long rectangles, home-dyed, and sewn together. The women in and around Sampson County even used tie-dye techniques to pattern feed-sack quilts, or dipped corn brooms into dye baths and decoratively spattered their cloth. Even today, the feeling persists that quilts are made only from “leftovers.”
By the time of the Great Depression, even the prosperous had joined in what has been called the “first quilt revival.” Part of this revival was a reaction to the overembellishment of Victorian times. Quilts also began to acquire “romance, historical significance, and status as folk art objects.”[v] Women felt the need to be productive, and there was little money for entertainment. For many, quiltmaking was reemphasized as a social time. In Alamance County in 1931 the people of the Eli Whitney community began an annual quilting event, “Uncle Eli’s Quilting Party,” that continues to the present day.[vi] Everywhere in the state families or neighbors got together to quilt and exchange gossip, household tips, or a favorite quilt pattern. A myriad of published patterns appeared in newspapers and magazines, including popular ones such as Dresden Plate, Little Dutch Girl, Double Wedding Ring, Trip Around the World, and Grandmother’s Flower Garden. Quilting events were organized as church fund-raisers. Often the privilege of having one’s name embroidered on the quilt was sold for a dime. Sometimes the quilt would be raffled or auctioned at a church supper. Church groups formed to quilt tops for others, or to make a finished quilt for a departing preacher. Neighbors got together to make a quilt for the local newlyweds. Quiltmaking was an inexpensive way to pass the time while producing both a useful and a decorative item. The title of a 1933 pattern leaflet offered in the Progressive Farmer announced, “Quilting Is In Fashion Again.”[vii]
World War II changed the course of women’s lives and of quiltmaking. Large numbers of women were already employed in the textile mills, but the new shortage of men in the workplace brought many more women into industry. Many North Carolinians abandoned farm life for the city or became rural commuters. Better education prepared girls for careers beyond homemaking. A new range of manufactured goods, the automobile, and homes with central heating would change forever some of the drudgery and labor-intensive tasks of women. This included the making of quilts. Quiltmaking persisted, but at a very reduced pace. Those who continued did so because it was pleasurable or because they wanted to leave grandchildren a quilted endowment expressing love and warmth.
For a time quiltmaking seemed to be an anachronism.
Then the realization began to grow that quilts are a true and valid art form, both functional and decorative, based on an artistic development unique to our country. Coupled with this came a new recognition of the American woman’s innate and continuous creativity. Today quilting is assuming its rightful place in both our cultural heritage and the ongoing evolution of the arts.

Kathlyn Fender Sullivan
All rights reserved

[i] Darden Diary, 6–10 November 1855.
[ii] Letter, 15 January 1860, Gash Papers.
[iii] Darden Diary, 19 March 1861.
[iv] For more information on this topic see Vlach, Afro-American Tradition; Wahlmann, “Aesthetics of the Afro-American Quilt”; and McDonald, “Jennie Burnett.”
[v] Benberry, “The Twentieth Century’s First Quilt Revival,” p. 29.
[vi] Kirkpatrick, “Uncle Eli’s Quilting Party,” p. 115.
[vii] Kirkpatrick, “Quilts, Quiltmaking, and the Progressive Farmer,” p. 145.

  • Documentation Project

    North Carolina Quilt Project

    North Carolina Museum of History

  • Ephemera

    Womenfolk 31. Feed Sacks Used for Quil...

    Breneman, Judy Anne

  • 1800-1849

    Bird of Paradise

    McCoy, Rebecca

  • 1800-1849

    Chintz Applique

    Parks, Ann Adeline

  • 1800-1849

    Chintz Medallion

    Snell, Margaret Jen...

  • 1850-1875

    Friendship Quilt

    McCallum, Laura

  • 1850-1875

    Mexican Rose Appl...

    Laughinghouse, Anne...

  • 1876-1900

    Philadelphia Rose...

    Pike, Ruth

  • Dixie Rose

    Williams, Sarah

  • 1850-1875


    Inman, Mary

  • 1876-1900

    Plume Circle Appl...

    Poovey, Emma

  • 1850-1875

    Cotton Boll

    Johnson, Frances

  • 1850-1875

    Noonday/Rising Su...

    Marion, Margaret El...

  • 1850-1875

    Her 5000 piece qu...

    Woodward, Sallie Ja...

  • 1876-1900

    Prairie Star with...

  • 1901-1929

    Barnyard Crazy Qu...

    Barrier, Mittie

  • 1901-1929

    Pine Cone

    Rascoe, Rebecca "Be...

  • 1930-1949


    Bailey, Ruby

  • 1930-1949

    Tie Dyed

    Jackson, Callie Eli...

  • 1950-1975

    Name quilt

    Ladies of the Churc...

  • 1950-1975


    Bridgers, Linda

Load More