Making a Living Making Quilts: A Historical Perspective

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Quilts for a Living: The Harness Family

Opal Harness Hatmaker

Molanie Lowe Harness's husband Jerry was killed in a coal mining accident in Briceville, Tennessee in 1919 when she was pregnant with her 14th child. Daughter Anna Opal was about five and recalled the hard times of her childhood in the Appalachia of Anderson County for interviewer John Rice Irwin in the 1980s.

Miners in Briceville, Tennessee.
Molanie had 11 sons, probably coal miners at a young age.

Molanie "depended on quilting to a great extent to feed the family." And the children all helped. Opal remembered that she started "tacking quilts, they call it tying now, when I was 7 or 8 years old. And if us girls didn't do it right, she'd make us take it out and do it again."

The quilting business included finishing quilts for others by quilting them or tying them, and making patchwork tops. 
"We'd quilt a whole quilt for $1.00 and then it raised up to $2.00. We'd get $1.00 for piecing one if they was furnishing the material. People would bring a big bag of quilt pieces and mother would piece all the quilt tops she could get out of it."

Quilts of Tennessee
The Harness family also tacked many utility quilts like this one
by Lizzie Longmire of Anderson County for their own use.

Customers visited the house. Women who'd had a top quilted "would come to pick up their quilts...then they'd see what we had, and if we had anything they wanted, then they'd buy it."
"If we got ahold of, or somebody would give us scraps of cloth, why we'd make little squares or nine diamonds or something like that. The first pattern that I really remember [Mother] doing, she called it the White Water Beauty. ...We made up a pattern we called it the Nine Diamond." 

I hear this is a Nine Diamond pattern

 "They didn't have all these patterns like that. They had the Grandmother's Flower Garden and the Lone Star, Double Wedding Ring, Bow Tie and the Nine Diamond. It was after I was married that we went into all these different patterns. Course they might've been out there but I just hadn't been nowhere to find them"

Fan quilting

Opal recalled that they quilted in fans. "I don't think we ever quilted one by the piece, like I quilt now."

Quilting by the piece, outlining each patch

Opal and Irwin estimated it took the four females in the family three days to piece and quilt a quilt for which they received $2, but at the time agricultural work paid 25 cents a day. The boys helped tack quilts but the three girls and their mother did the quilting and piecing.

Perhaps a Nine Diamond quilt by Siotha Hibbs Longmire, in Anderson County.
Quilts of Tennessee and the Quilt Index

Opal is on the cover of Irwin's book
A People and Their Quilts and you can see a string
suspending her quilting frame from the ceiling on the far left.

"We had the old-fashion swinging quilting frames that hung from the ceiling."

Opal made this quilt for John Rice Irwin in appreciation for
his support of her quiltmaking. She demonstrated quilting
at the fair in Knoxville.

The widow and her fourteen orphans had no financial assistance and survived by quiltmaking and growing most of their own food. Flour, sugar and coffee were luxuries that the quilting money paid for. Shoes were beyond their reach and Opal was only able to go to school through the fourth grade because someone gave her a pair of  "old ragged second hand...high topped shoes."

Peddler in Anderson County, Tennessee in the late 1930s.
Tennessee Virtual Archive

Opal  married Hermon Morton Hatmaker in 1934. Times were better for them. Hermon worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority, a government project during the depression of the 1930s. They had only one child. Opal made quilts to fill her time and told Irwin she'd earned $2010.08 by selling them the year he interviewed her. Opal became a spokesperson for the mountain crafts revival when a sunbonnet was a necessity for demonstrating the "lost art." 

Molanie Harness's grave. Her dates: 1880-1956. She was
39 when her husband died and raised 14 children as a single mother.

Opal and a sampler top. 
She is apparently quilting on a table, a technique she mentions doing as a child,
 with the family's only kerosene lamp sitting in the quilt's center.

Read Opal's story in John Rice Irwin's A People and Their Quilts.

Opal's grave


  1. One of my very favorite quilting and history books.

  2. I can't believe Irwin's book is that old! I remember how excited I was when it came out. I think it is time to re-read it. Thanks for the inspiration.

  3. Between 1983 and 1989 I read all the quilt making books our local library had. Then we moved to the Dayton, OH area, and I read all that library's quilt making books too. The books at that time were already old, now likely gone from those libraries, but I read that one, her picture confirms it for me. I love the old stories like this!

  4. I have this book and it's still one of my fav's!