Making a Living Making Quilts: A Historical Perspective

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Sewing for Money in Yadkin County

Mary Jane “Jennie” Newsom Pilcher (1860-1957) lived much of her life in Yadkin County, North Carolina in the Piedmont region of the state. She lived a very long life, born the month that Abraham Lincoln was first elected President and dying during the Eisenhower administration when she was 97 years old.

The North Carolina quilt project recorded the star quilt above, a classic example of Southern Appalachian quilt style popular in the years 1880-1930 or so with its bold, solid color fabrics and triple strip sashing. The quilt owner who brought the quilt in for documentation had inherited it from her Uncle John Wesley Doub and she also passed on the family story that her Uncle, a bachelor, had Jennie Pilcher make quilts for him. Jennie was apparently a professional quiltmaker.

Baltimore United Methodist Church where all these neighbors gathered

Both Jennie and John Doub are buried in the Baltimore United Methodist Church cemetery in East Bend, a small town northwest of Winston Salem. The project saw other quilts from the Baltimore community in East Bend, two from the Doub family.

Howard Newton Doub (1914 - 1974) with 
two of his sisters Irene and Ruth about 1919.

In 1935 the Doub family and Jennie Pilcher made a quilt for Leona Hutchens Doub's eldest son Howard Newton Doub who turned 21 that year.

Yadkin County quilters carried a taste for triple strip sashing
well into the mid- 20th century. The style is a bit old-fashioned for the mid-1930s.

The Quilt Index file on the Bear's Paw quilt tells us that the woman who brought the quilt in for photography recalled it was a joint project by Julie Doub Speas, Nancy Doub, Jenny Pilcher & other neighbors.

Family photo from Find A Grave, looks perhaps 1930
or a little earlier

We can guess that Howard's mother Leona is the woman standing at left, about 40 when this photo of five generations was taken. She probably had a had a hand in her son's quilt. Leona Velma Hutchens Doub (1893-1993) lived to be 100 years old...

...and continued making quilts. The family also brought this quilt of hers they believed to have been made in 1972.

The other standing woman in the photo above may be Leona's mother Ruth Permelia Williams Hutchens (1871-1943) who would be about 60 years old in the photo. A memoir of  Permelia at Find-A-Grave tells us she and her daughters sewed tobacco sacks as piece work during the 1930s. The Morse & Wade Sack Factory in East Bend sent unfinished sacks in cardboard boxes to women in the area who would stitch the seams. The sack company then sold them to the tobacco companies in Winston-Salem.

R. J. Reynolds tobacco sack from Winston Salem

There were a LOT of tobacco sacks out there and apparently the system was that local women sewed the seams (and probably inserted the string) as home workers.


  1. About those strings in the tobacco sacks -- In a book about the New Mexico quilt survey, one surveyor noted that quilters often used some sort of yellow string to tie the quilts. Then quilt owners pointed out this string was gathered from those who used tobacco. Truly a make-do quilt community -- the cuffs from many pairs of worn out socks instead of the batting was found in several quilts.

  2. I recall reading too, that the strings that flour sacks were sewn with were also used to tie quilt/comforters.

  3. Of course. Waste not, want not. Now I have to look for quilts with yellow cotton ties.