Making a Living Making Quilts: A Historical Perspective

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Quilting Customs from a WPA Interview


The Florida project found a quilt attributed to Newberry, South Carolina
about the time Mayme Reese lived there

In 1938 Mayme Reese was interviewed in her New York City apartment in Harlem by Dorothy West looking for information on "Beliefs & Customs-Folklife" for the federal WPA project.


Mayme was born about 1880 in Charleston, South Carolina and lived in Newberry, Newberry County, northwest of Columbia, SC. She moved to New York as a young woman. Her memories of quilting customs were of an African-American community in the rural south at the turn of the 20th century.

Could not find a photo of Mayme but another WPA project
photographed a Green County, Georgia event where men tied
quilts (very untraditional event!)

Mayme talked of the social networks of working together, how she'd won two prizes at the local fair and how the quilters would stitch quilts for "rich white women."
"Sometimes rich white women would hear that such and such a person had won the prize for pretty quilts and they'd come and ask that person to make them a quilt. Sometimes they'd make it and sometimes they wouldn't ... If they did make it, they'd get around five dollars ... Sometimes they'd furnish the scraps and sometimes they wouldn't. Most of the time, though, they'd buy pieces of goods and give it to the person who was making the quilt to cut up. They'd get different colors and they'd say what pattern they wanted."
Those ellipses are in the Library of Congress documents; too bad we can't hear everything Mayme said about that part of women's work. And they did not discuss patchwork patterns.

Green County, Georgia in the late 1930s

Mayme talked a little of the quilting designs and I assume she was talking about what we'd call fan quilting here:
If you were going to have a curving stitch, you'd sew one way. If you were going to quilt block fashion, you'd sew that way. (Make the stitches in the pattern of a square of a size decided upon.)

The basket quilt is quilted with a curving stitch.
We'd call it fan quilting.

Here's the transcript of the interview:

"We used to have quilting parties at least twice a year. One time we would meet at one house and one time at another; you'd keep on that way until the quilt was finished.... Well, say there'd be three or four ladies who were good friends. If I was making the quilt, I'd set up the frame (quilting frame) in my house and the other two or three ladies would come to my house and spend the day quilting. I'd have it all ready for the quilting to start ... Maybe I'd have been sewing scraps together for a year until I got the cover all made. Then when my friends would come, the cover would be all ready and there wouldn't be anything to do but start working on the padding. If there were four ladies, each would take an end. (Gestures) I'd take this end, the other two would take the ends over there. You'd decide before how you were going to make the stitches. If you were going to have a curving stitch, you'd sew one way. If you were going to quilt block fashion, you'd sew that way. (Make the stitches in the pattern of a square of a size decided upon.)

Depending upon how many quilts you needed a year or just wanted to make, there'd be that many quilting parties for ladies who were intimates. If none of my friends were going to make quilts in a year, then they'd keep coming to my house maybe twice a week until we got it finished. If you worked right along and didn't stop to talk — 'course most of the time we stopped to gossip a little - you could finish a quilt in a day or two. All that depended on the pattern, too. If somebody else was making a quilt, we'd go to their house and exchange labor 'till they got their quilt done.

In the fall when they had the county fairs, sometimes we'd take our quilts out to fair-grounds for exhibition. Each lady picked out her best quilt - the prettiest color, the prettiest pattern and the best stitches - and took it to the fair to try to win the prize ... No, it didn't make any difference if your prettiest quilt had been quilted by three or four other people. You see you already had the pattern and you'd already put the pieces together so that much was your own idea. And that counted more than the help you got - and the results you got - when you were putting it on the frame. Sometimes a church club would make quilt and enter it in the name of the church. Even if they put it in the club's name, the club would give the money to the church if they won... Once I won the
prize for my own quilt and once I was one of a group that won. The prize most often five dollars. Sometimes it was ten.

Sometimes rich white women would hear that such and such a person had won the prize for pretty quilts and they'd come and ask that person to make them a quilt. Sometimes they'd make it and sometimes they wouldn't ... If they did make it, they'd get around five dollars ... Sometimes they'd furnish the scraps and sometimes they wouldn't. Most of the time, though, they'd buy pieces of goods and give it to the person who was making the quilt to cut up. They'd get different colors and they'd say what pattern they wanted."


Jorena Pettway of Gees Bend, Alabama, and her daughter Jennie (other daughter unnamed)
were photographed several times by Arthur Rothstein in 1937 in a WPA project.

Jorena loved doing handwork and crocheted, embroidered and made quilts
that decorated their home. What is going on here is hard to fathom but it involves
a finished top. Photographers have had a hard time depicting the process of quiltmaking.
They ask you to be sewing on it but they want a view of the finished piece.
She's putting in the last stitch.


1 comment:

  1. Silently reading the transcribed narration I could almost hear her voice in my head, the intonations, and pauses. Very interesting article.

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