Born in Nashville, Anne Champe Orr became widely known at home and abroad for the published needlework patterns she began producing in 1915. A lifelong resident of Nashville, she studied with Nashville artist Sara Ward Conley, also briefly pursuing her artistic interests in Chicago, New York, and Cincinnati. After her 1894 marriage to Pulaski businessman J. Hunter Orr, she became active in Nashville social circles, serving on the State Board of the Women’s Department of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in 1897. She was a founding member of the Centennial Club, a women’s cultural organization that spun off from the Women’s Department at the close of the fair. Orr served as chair of the club’s Decorative and Applied Arts Committee for some years.
Orr began her career as art editor for the Nashville-based Southern Woman’s Magazine in 1913-14. Even though she was not a needleworker herself, she created easy-to-follow charted designs for cross-stitch, embroidery, and crochet, later doing the same for knitting, lacemaking (particularly tatting) and rugmaking. Orr continued her work at Southern Woman’s Magazine until 1918, simultaneously publishing and selling pattern pamphlets out of her own Anne Orr Design Studio located in her home on Twenty-first Avenue South. The inexpensive black-and-white booklets Orr created included a variety of needlework alphabets, designs for children’s clothing, fancy table accessories, and lingerie. For the first few years, they were self-published, printed by Brandon Printing Company in Nashville. As early as 1916, Anne Orr designs began to be sponsored by the British firms J & P Coats and Clark’s Thread; later sponsors in the 1930s were American Thread and Spool Cotton. Around 1921, Orr was hired as needlework editor for Good Housekeeping magazine, a position she held until 1938-39. She is perhaps best known today for her forays in the world of quilts, particularly the combination of needlework and traditional quilt patterns exemplified in her designs of the 1930s and 1940s. According to historian Beverly Gordon, one characteristic style was an appliqué medallion surrounded by an open field with an appliqué border. Orr’s reputation spread when she was invited to serve as one of the judges for the Sears, Roebuck and Company quilt contest at the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress Exposition. She contributed two columns on quilting to Better Homes & Gardens in January and February 1943; the Lockport Batting Company published a book entitled Anne Orr Quilts in 1944; and she continued to design and publish patterns until her death in 1946.
Both historian Jane S. Becker and folklorist Robert Cogswell have compared Orr to the elites who shaped the second wave of the Appalachian handicraft revival. Orr introduced contemporary “Colonial Revival” designs that evoked nostalgia for an imagined American past. By suggesting that modern women engage in pre-industrial handwork, Orr invited them to recreate, in action and object, a domestic realm far removed from the pace of everyday life. According to Becker, Orr also suggested that those who preferred not to do their own quilting might consign her designs to needleworkers in Kentucky. According to historian Beverly Gordon, Orr’s audience ranged from ladies of leisure to busy young mothers and college girls, many of them middle-class consumers enticed by her invitation to create their own heirlooms.
Upon her death, the Nashville Banner lauded Anne Orr as a “Southern Gentlewoman . . . who captured beauty from everything around her and wove it into the tapestry of her life.” Perhaps because many of her designs were transferred from cross- stitch, they appear today to have a modern, almost digitized appearance.
The Nashville Room, Nashville Public Library, has a collection of Anne
Orr publications. Jane S. Becker, Selling Tradition: Appalachia and the
Construction of an American Folk, 1930-1940 (1998); Robert Cogswell,
“Refining the Tradition: Anne Champe Orr,” in Merikay Waldvogel, Soft
Covers for Hard Times (1990); Beverly Gordon, “Spinning Wheels,
Samplers and the Modern Priscilla: The Images and Paradoxes of Colonial
Revival Needlework,” Wintherthur Portfolio 33, no. 2/3 (Summer-Autumn,
1990), 163-94; Bets Ramsey, “Quilts as Art,” Christi Teasley,
“Textiles,” Merikay Waldvogel, “Anne Champe Orr,” in Carroll Van West,
ed., A History of Tennessee Arts (2003)