Quilts combine art with history

Published 5:16 am Monday, March 17, 2003

By By MIKE VOSS, Contributing Editor
PLYMOUTH – Quilts – and those who make them – have long been a part of the fabric that makes North Carolina.
Parts of that fabric were displayed this past weekend at the Washington County Cultural Arts Centre on Water Street in Plymouth. Felicity MacGrain put together the display, which includes books about quilts and quilting available at the Washington County Library and information collected from the Internet.
For MacGrain, compiling the quilt showcase's exhibits was a labor of love.
"We have pieces from the turn of the (20th) century to the contemporary," MacGrain said Sunday. "I wouldn't have believed it unless I had seen it myself."
MacGrain seemed to know the story behind each quilt.
"I just happen to be obsessed by quilting. That's the only reason I work, so I can afford my hobby," she said.
A wide range of quilts hung in the new home of the arts center. A quilted jacket was part of the display.
One quilt, owned by Judy Mayo, featured shamrocks, not a bad choice the weekend before St. Patrick's Day.
A small, machine cross-stitch quilt made by Kathy Walker proved popular with visitors to the showcase. It features several panels of apples. Walker made the quilt for her husband. This explanation was adjacent to the quilt: "He used to eat green apples right from the tree."
Many quilts displayed have been passed from one generation to the next. Other quilts at the showcase are new, waiting to be passed from generation to generation.
Rita Asby closely inspected the quilts Sunday afternoon. She had a good reason for doing that.
"I'm thinking about beginning," she noted.
Asby owns quilts made by her female relatives, including her mother-in-law. She's ready to tackle the art form, especially after being inspired by MacGrain.
"I really like the new styles, colors and patterns," Asby said. "It's portable. I can take it with me."
There's a practical reason to make quilts rather than buy them.
"I use them all the time," Asby said.
The quilt showcase is as much educational as it is cultural.
One display focuses on cigar silks, usually used to make Victorian-era crazy quilts. According to MacGrain, Victorian-era women would send their husbands, or other male relatives, to a tobacco shop to pick up cigar silks. Cigars once came wrapped in silk fabric, MacGrain explained. Those cigar silks were used to make quilts.
Other quilts were made by using penny squares, which sold for a penny. The squares contained various patterns. The red-line patterns were embroidered by following the pattern. The squares were used to sewn together to form a quilt.
The quilt showcase also included a an appliqued quilt block made by a Hmong woman in a refugee camp in Thailand after the Vietnam War.
Deborah Brooks, president of the Washington County Arts Council, said other showcases are in the works.
"This is just one showcase that is a part of a bigger showcase with different displays. We showcase a different art … and a different group of artists each month," Brooks said.
The monthly showcases are part of the council's mission to educate people about the arts, she added.
According to the North Carolina Handmade Web site, "The Great Depression brought a quilt-making revival to North Carolina. People were attracted to its economy, and quilts began to be recognized as folk-art pieces."
At least one quilt actually wove pieces of history into its fabric.
"One quilt, made by a mother whose two sons fought on opposing sides, contains strips of cloth from both Union and Rebel uniforms, perhaps her way of trying to patch back together her breaking heart!" reads part of "How Quilts Create Patchwork of History" by Linda Bordner, as reported on the Olde Kinston Gazette Web site.