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Southern American Quilts – Lecture by Teddy Pruett

by Pippa Moss – October 11, 2012

When I was in Florida, I attended QuiltFest 2012, in Jacksonville. This is an annual quilt show, put on by seven local quilt guilds. Their planned speaker was ill, so the replacement speaker was Teddy Pruett, a quilt historian and appraiser from Lake City, Fla. Her subject was ‘Southern Quilts’ and you can find more information in a past issue of Uncoverings (AQSG) and Quilters Newsletter Magazine  2007. Photos of quilts can be seen at the bottom of this post.

Southern quilts – how to distinguish them – what are their characteristics? Teddy sees a lot of quilts in her role as appraiser. Many are from other regions, brought by people moving to Florida. But Southern quilts are very recognizable.

We were shown a Colonial Ladies quilt – although  the subject is of southern ladies, it was apparent that this was a Northern quilt. The fabric was bought new, and the workmanship was very good. When Teddy sees a quilt, she can often tell the family’s background and their religion: also the area. Quilts reflect the maker’s culture, and this is deeply rooted.

Quilts from the deep South are everyday quilts – they are not lovely. Pre Civil War – elaborate quilts were seen made by wealthy women and sometimes slaves. But post Civil War and pre WWII southern quilts are  utility quilts. The area was devastated by the Civil War and the quilts are ‘ugly stepsisters’ – but full of heritage. Regional variations are seen within Southern Quilts, also.

The Deep South covers about a quarter of the US ,  but is a varied area. These quilts are not from cities, or coastal areas, which have their own traditions. These are quilts from rural areas. The area encompasses TN, KY, SC NC, ARK, TX FLA, MI LA but not VA or MD. The last two were settled by aristocratic families so the culture is different. Southern quilts come from the areas that are largely Scots/Irish in origin.

Southern quilts have very thick heavy wadding, poor workmanship, no bindings, and an odd placement of colours.

(see the image gallery at the start of this page to see larger images of these quilts)

In southern quilts, there is often the odd colour placement of fabrics. In this quilt, the block is the same but appears very differnet due to the varied placement of colours.

Southern quilts were usually made from worn clothing, where the less worn areas were recycled into quilts. This is unlike Northern quilts, which were made from dressmaking scrap (ie, unworn or new fabrics).

These quilts are very heavy – up to 10 pounds of locally grown cotton was used as a filling. Battings were available to buy or by mail order but the quilters were too poor, and had to use locally available cotton. The cotton was hand picked and ginned to remove the seeds, then hand carded.

This is Teddy’s oldest quilt and is unlovely. It is made of dyed feed sacks.

You may be wondering why quilts were needed in an area that has the reputation for being so warm. The truth is, that the winter weather could be cold – and the houses were very poor structures. ‘Cracker shacks’ had no insulation and were made of single boards only. There was a porch across the front, with a steep pitched tin roof, and the whole was raised on bricks, so warm winter bedding was a necessity.

This is a ninepatch where the blocks are very varied due to the fairly random placement of fabrics. The standard of workmanship is not high in southern quilts.

This pattern is known as Honeymoon cottage and was a nationally publicised pattern. In other areas is was made well – but here, in typical southern style, it is poorly made. This quilt is a summer quilt, with no wadding.

Patterns with circles and points were popular in the south – again, poorly made with poor workmanship, typical of quilts made in this region. Most quilts were quickly  made – but even the ‘best’ quilts were poorly made, with big stitches.

Another southern quilt with circles and points – here made in home dyed fabrics. The red has stood up well, and has not faded like many home dyed reds (Congo red was one of the well known  red home dyes). However, the green has faded badly, apart from one small square which was from a different source. The quilting pattern here is fan or ‘shell’ quilting. This was a popular quilting pattern as it was easy to make and could easily be resolved in the middle of the quilt (where a ‘ridgeback’ was seen).

Applique quilts are also distinctive, as Southern quilts often have a larger verison, with massive pieces. Here is a version  of ‘Dutch Doll’ , as Sunbonnet Sue was known in the south, where the dolls are very crudely done. This particular quilt may be of Afro-American origin, but this is only speculation.

Because southern quilts were  made from recycled and worn scraps, they wore poorly and were difficult to wash or repair. It was common to recover old quilts.

Southern quilts do not have bindings, the backing is brought to the front and hand sewn down. Quilting stitches are coarse, about 2 -4 to the inch, due to the heavy batting.

Another common southern quilt treatment was inner triple borders (but sometimes,  not in the outer borders).

I found this talk interesting, it reminded me of the Welsh quilters, who used the materials that were available to them using the techniques that were part of their culture, under conditions of poverty. Quilts are truly a reflection of the local culture.