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Mamie Bryan

North Carolina; United States

Mamie Bryan learned to make quilts from her husband's mother, Alice Goans Bryan. Mamie Bryan made quilts to keep her family warm and because quilting provided a pleasant way to keep busy and productive while her husband was working in West Virginia or out foxhunting at night. At the time of the interview in 1978, Mrs. Bryan had not made quilts for several years because of failing eyesight.

Mrs. Bryan pieced her quilts by hand, using remnants from the clothing she sewed for her family. At times she also recycled the good parts of worn-out family clothing into quilts. She recalled purchasing the fabrics to make a special "silk" quilt. (Satin-woven rayon or acetate fabrics are often referred to as "artificial silk" because they were designed to imitate the luster, fine texture, and light weight of natural silk.) For quilt linings, she purchased "factory cloth," a plain woven product manufactured in cotton mills in the nearby Piedmont region of North Carolina and sold in local stores. She also reused the cotton sacks from animal feed, a popular free source of fabric for thrifty families during the 1930s and 1940s. Typically she purchased Diamond brand dyes to color the plain white fabrics for her quilt linings. For one particular quilt, Mrs. Bryan used two purchased "countypins" (counterpanes) for the top and bottom. (The term "counterpane" can designate many different types of bedcover; here it refers to one designed to serve as a decorative bedspread rather than as a blanket to be covered up.)

Mrs. Bryan's method of making quilts reflected a number of factors. First, she was a busy person with many responsibilities, and she adopted methods that allowed her to complete her work quickly and efficiently. Second, she had limited access to materials, so she sought to make the best use of what she had. Large remnants were left large and were squared off to make them easy to join with others. Smaller scraps were saved up and combined to make tops. Third, Mrs. Bryan had limited exposure to commercial quilt patterns. Her quilts generally followed examples set by earlier, locally made, utilitarian quilts. Fourth, her quilts reflect an African-American design aesthetic, and some of Mrs. Bryan's quilts resemble those made by other African-American quiltmakers, particularly in the southeastern United States.

The quilts that Mrs. Bryan made for everyday use were typically pieced from large squares, rectangles, or strips. Her mother-in-law had made a counterpane (an unquilted appliqued bedspread) using the "Dutch Girl" pattern. (The particular version made by Alice Bryan closely resembles the "Colonial Lady" pattern published in the 1930s by the Grandma Dexter, part of the Dexter Yarn and Thread Company of Elgin, Illinois.) Mamie Bryan converted the counterpane into a quilt by tufting it with knots similar to embroidered French knots. (There is evidence of a larger tradition of tufted bedspreads in northwestern North Carolina during the first half of the twentieth century. However, those bedspreads were typically made using white yarn on plain white fabric.)

Mamie Bryan's mother-in-law was also her source for the "Log Cabin" pattern. After making four blocks with this pattern, however, Mrs. Bryan decided that the process was too slow, and she completed the quilt by making blocks in a more familiar free-form manner.

Mamie Bryan quilted some of her tops and tacked others, especially the heavier ones. She quilted during the winter months, setting up her frame in the living room near the fire.

Mamie Bryan made quilts to meet the physical needs of her family. She also used quiltmaking as a form of creative expression, choosing and rearranging colors "to make them look pretty." She gave quilts to her children, but reported that her children preferred to use blankets, as quilts were considered to be old-fashioned. At the time of the interview, Mrs. Bryan was focusing her creative energy on growing flowers around her house.

Written by Horton, Laurel (1999)

American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
 

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