Tennessee Mountain Stories


My Aunt Roberta has a sign in her sewing room that reads, “The one that dies with the most fabric WINS.”  Any crafter, quilter or seamstress can appreciate that sentiment.  Last week’s discussion about feed sack fabric and a one reader’s comment about ‘up-cycling’ got me to thinking about quilting.

I love quilts and have really enjoyed quilt shows that I’ve been able to attend.  We have truly talented people creating absolute works of art with fabric.  From monochromatic to wildly colorful, from traditional patterns to abstract designs, quilts are an incredible medium for your creative side.  But my favorite part at any show is the display of antique quilts.  Today’s quilter has an internet chocked full of pattern resources and fabrics in every color and print you can imagine.  We have sewing machines that will make stitches I could never even imagine and quilting machines that will knit together the layers of a quilt at lightning speeds.  Yesterday’s quilter had only her imagination, a pattern cut from stiff brown paper and innumerable hand-made stitches.


Our grandmother’s quilts tell a story on several levels – just as a quilt has several layers.

The top layer of a quilt is appropriately called the quilt top.  This is the pretty part that you usually see – it will be pieced in a design with carefully chosen fabrics and colors.  Traditional quilt tops were made of pieces of cloth redeemed from cast offs.  Shirts too torn to mend, dresses too small and worn, the corner pieces of cloth after a garment was cut out – all of these went into the quilt bag.  When a top was started, the colors would be laid and sorted to satisfy the quilter.  How precious to look at a beautiful patchwork and remember your little brother’s Sunday shirt or Mama’s kitchen dress.

The second layer of a quilt is batting.  This is the stuff that makes a quilt fluffy and soft.  Today’s quilters have an array of products available from pure cotton to polyester with a lot in between.  I suppose wool may have been used in some areas, but we traditionally used a cotton batting. While the Plateau’s climate isn’t conducive to large scale cotton farming, enough cotton to bat a quilt could easily been grown.  My great-grandmother, Nancy Livesay, would raise her own cotton, hand clean it (there wasn’t a cotton gin anywhere in the area) and card it to make her own batting.  She passed away more than a decade before I was born so regrettably I never got to see this process.  And I can scarcely imagine hand-quilting through that dense batting.  But her efforts (and I’m sure hers were not alone among plateau women of her generation) certainly illustrate the resourcefulness of the crafts-women. 

Finally, a quilt requires a backing.  Today we like to have a single piece of fabric for our quilt backings and that’s easy to do with modern, commercial looms.  But once again the resourcefulness of both the generation and the area prevailed and a substitute was found.  Do you remember the picture associated with last week’s article of a 125 pound fertilize sack?  A popular use for such a homely fabric was the back of a quilt.  It wouldn’t really be seen anyway since you would always be looking at the colorful top of the quilt and it was a very serviceable fabric.  My research led me to a lot of recipes for how to bleach out the writing on those sacks, but for a quilt backing only a good washing was required. 

This leads us to the actual quilting process… but alas, look how long you’ve already been reading!  That will have to wait till next week.  In the meantime, I’m still hoping some of you will share pictures of your heirloom quilts.  Just let me know, via a Facebook or Twitter message, if you have one and we’ll get it posted for all the readers to enjoy.