Quiltmaking has been a form of needlework enjoyed by generations of Tennessee women–and men–from the first settlers’ arrival to the present day. The earliest quilts, made when fabric was scarce and expensive, graced the homes of affluent families. Blankets, bed rugs, and feather beds, rather than quilts, were readily obtainable to use for bedcovers. Initially European traditions and fashion influenced styles and techniques, but gradually quiltmaking in America became an arena for invention and refinement. As cloth production increased, so did the interest in making quilts.
A survey of Tennessee quilts conducted in the 1980s failed to locate any quilts made in the state prior to 1800, but the earliest quilts brought into the state were wholecloth, medallion chintzwork and had simple geometric patterns. Numerous Tennessee-made quilts from the first half of the nineteenth century, however, were preserved, many because they had special significance. Among these were pre-Civil War brides’ quilts made from fine material, lavished with exceptional needlework, and reserved for special occasions.
In the nineteenth century the block arrangement of patchwork began to replace eighteenth-century styles, beginning with a format of four large squares. The squares were cut to the width of the material for minimum waste and, if the bed was especially high, nine squares were required. Plumes, Cockscomb and Currant, and Rose of Sharon were among the most popular patterns and are found in many variations. All sewing was done by hand until after mid-century. Domestic or imported cotton and linen fabrics were favored, or occasionally wool, with cotton or wool for filler. Handwoven material for backing is found on a number of early Tennessee quilts. As the century progressed, quilt blocks grew smaller in size, and there were greater choices of designs for patterns.
Many hardships accompanied the Civil War. Quilts and blankets were donated to the war effort or were confiscated by marauding soldiers from both sides. The blockade caused extreme shortages of manufactured goods, and prices soared. It was almost impossible to get sewing supplies, cloth, and cards for preparing quilt batts. Weaving in the home was resumed in order to make clothes and household goods. Utility quilts made from this period stand in marked contrast to the elaborate brides’ quilts made before the war.
After the Civil War pieced designs increased in popularity as patterns in publications multiplied. With improved transportation and commerce, local peddlers were replaced by shops and country stores. Increased mill production in the South provided affordable cloth for every quiltmaker. If cotton was not grown at home, it was easy to obtain. Quiltmaking was practiced in nearly every household in Tennessee in the nineteenth century.
Several conclusions can be drawn from the survey of quilts made in Tennessee prior to 1930. In Rhea County the technique of adding extra stuffing to the quilting design, popular in the mid-nineteenth century, continued there until 1900 and sets many Rhea County quilts apart. Fewer Tennessee quilts have borders in comparison to those of other regions, and the quilting is not particularly refined or precise. Of those patterns appearing with frequency, Rocky Mountain Road was much favored.
Interest in quiltmaking fluctuated nationally in the twentieth century, but many Tennessee quilters never diminished their activity. Local groups and individuals continue to make quilts for family and friends, for worthy causes, and for sale. State and local fairs, contests, guilds, quilt shows, agricultural extension groups, museum exhibitions, and media coverage contribute to the nurturing of quiltmaking in the state.
Anne Orr of Nashville was a popular needlework columnist and entrepreneur who made an impact on quilt styles nationally in the 1920s and 1930s. When a new revival took place fifty years later, annual meetings and exhibitions of the Southern Quilt Symposium in Chattanooga during the 1970s and 1980s gave emphasis to quilts as art.
Subtle differences in color, pattern, and style in some of the older quilts allow them to be recognized as Tennessee-made, but those differences are disappearing in the global quilt revival which began in the 1960s and which has resulted in a proliferation of quilting literature and instruction.
Bets Ramsey and Merikay Waldvogel, The Quilts of Tennessee: Images of Domestic Life Prior to 1930 (1986)