“Look at this one — made in 1930 and it’s ugly,” sniffed one visitor attending the current old-textiles exhibit at the Folk Art Center.
Titled 150 Years of North Carolina Quilts: Selections from the Pattie Royster James Collection, the show boasts some 30 examples of the cozy craft. And, as the would-be critic implied, a 1930s-era quilt is one of the newer examples of craftsmanship on display.
“Someone’s gone and written on each piece,” the viewer then lamented to her friend, leaning closer to peer at a scrap of fabric on the quilt called “Strippie.”
“You know,” she suddenly waxed philosophically, “they used to initial them.”
Had the viewer paused to look closer, she would have noticed that the scrawl so rudely interrupting the colorful brocade swatches of the geometric design was not the signature of a sloppy quilter, but rather a marking imprinted on the fabric itself. Because “Strippie” — like so many of the quilts in this exhibit — was not created to be hung on a wall and admired. Patched together out of fabric samples (most likely from Burlington Mills, according to the wall plaque), this quilt was meant to be used. And was used.
“Strippie” is part of a collection of more than 100 such coverlets, an exhibit begun as a personal tribute to — who else? — Mom.
Dr. A. Everette James, Jr., a regional-craft enthusiast, had preserved a bit of his family heritage by buying and renovating a defunct Primitive Baptist Church in Martin County (located in rural Eastern North Carolina). Procured by James in the 1980s, the church had been attended by his mother, aunt and uncle. James planned to use the church to display North Carolina folk art, and his mother, Pattie Royster James — herself a practitioner of the craft — suggested that he add quilts to his collection.
“This quilt will outlast us all,” sighed another fiber-arts aficionado at the Folk Art Center, gazing at an example from 1843. Patterned in a double Irish chain, this quilt is one of the nicer in the collection: Showing elegant pink and cream squares bordered with a wide strip of floral chintz, it’s among the few pieces that bears an actual date.
However, most of the examples on display come with at least some semblance of a history. James began his collecting at county fairs and estate sales, but also purchased quilts from dealers and directly from quilters and family members who could provide him not only with a finished piece but with its story.
“Spiral,” crafted in the 1850s, features a fluid wheel-shaped motif. James’ notes conclude that this quilt was probably stitched by a German quilter, because the design resembles the German fylfot, or pinwheel.
Despite the tight symmetry of the design, the quilt isn’t without its oddities. The top row is fashioned from material of a completely different color. After all, function was more important than form.
“Why did they round the corners?” a male viewer was overheard asking, this time in front of “Winding Blade,” another take on the pinwheel. The circa-1890 quilt features “X” shapes in muted colors.
Though James in his notes reveals that rounded corners were a style motif typical of N.C. quilts, the man’s companion offered her own take.
“It saved fabric,” she said with authority. “I remember my aunt doing that.”
Pointing to one of the winding blades in the top corner, she then indicated an out-of-character, bright-green square. “Yep, they ran out of fabric.”
Despite that dubious assessment, some of the show’s examples clearly are about making do with what’s on hand. The 1920s-era “Joseph’s Coat” was fashioned from strips of women’s blouses and scarves, their mismatched patterns arranged like parquet.
Two crazy quilts from the 1920s are attributed to African-American makers. Large sections of drab material bespeak an artist of humble means — but near the bottom of one quilt, a small triangle of bright red grabs the eye.
Even with only scraps for their palettes, the regional quilters were able to make artistic choices in their designs. “Log Cabin,” created between the 1950s and ’60s, is a happy, dizzying array of squares.
Others, like “Sprocket or Wheel of Fortune,” circa 1900, are more about whimsy than exact geometry. The orange sprockets repeated across the quilt vary in size and shape. The opposite extreme, “Tumbling Blocks” from the 1890s, used wool- and silk-blend fabrics to create a 3-D effect.
“They were really advanced in their designs back then,” marveled yet another onlooker. High praise for a quilt never intended to leave the obscurity of the bedroom.
Collector Dr. A. Everette James, Jr. has authored and contributed to a wide range of books on regional crafts, including books about the works of Southern women artists. His publications include North Carolina Art Pottery Identification and Value Guide (Collector Books, 2003); Essays in Folk Art (Professional Press, 2000); and American Art: Thoughts of a Collector (Warren H. Green, 2000). He’ll offer a gallery talk and book signing at Asheville Art Museum from 2-4 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 21. The event is offered in conjunction with the current AAM exhibit Carolina Women Artists: 1850-1950 (on display through Sunday, Nov. 28). The talk and book signing are free with museum admission. For more information, call 253-3227.
In conjunction with 150 Years of N.C. Quilts: Selections from the Pattie Royster James Collection, Quilt Day will be held from 1-5 p.m. at the Folk Art Center (Milepost 382 on the Blue Ridge Parkway) on Sunday, Nov. 7. General admission is free; bring your quilt ($5 per consultation) to be evaluated by experts. For more information, call 298-7928.