The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
Have You Hugged a
Much of what I do in my line of work involves sourcing and looking closely at photographs of quilts and quilters. As a magazine editor and a person at work on a documentary film project about American quilt history, I’d better be looking around, right? I also write a dandy column for quilt industry leader Quilts, Inc., and this assignment adds to my store of images of quilts and quilters. Have you read my column? It is very good.
And what I have discovered in parsing through photographs in the internet of quilts—and I’m speaking here of photographs with people in them, less about images of quilts on their own—is that there are rich caches of pictures to be found as a result of the work of folklorists. I have learned by falling through the internet rabbit hole that a huge amount of valuable work on quilt culture in America has been executed by the folklorists among us and we are in their debt.
Eiler, Lyntha Scott, and Carrie Severt. Carrie Severt, laundry, and quilt hanging on porch. Alleghany County United States Virginia, 1978. Alleghany County, Virginia, September. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/qlt000134/. Before I say any more about this, let’s first take a look at that word “folklore.” Most people, including me, before I knew more about all this, hear the word “folklore” and think of Bigfoot. To put it with slightly more dignity, people hear “folklore” and think of stories shared for so long, they’ve probably lost touch with reality, been embellished and all mixed up. But whatever the folktale, it’s fair to say that they still hold meaning for the people who share them and probably give folks (!) a little thrill when they share them.
This understanding of folklore is not incorrect, but it’s not complete, either. The definition in the dictionary that lives in my computer defines “folklore” as:
the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth.
In other words, there’s more to folklore than Bigfoot. I can drive this point home by identifying the folklorist. To be a folklorist—which is an actual title and people train at universities and colleges to become folklorists—is essentially to study the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through generations: a definition which should by now sound familiar to you. It is nice for the folklorist that their line of work does not only involve investigating Bigfoot, and any folklorist will confirm that this is true.
Dr. Susan Roach with a big stack of quilts on the campus of LSU. Photo © Quiltfolk Magazine. I am not qualified to give you a history of the emergence of the field of folklore in this country, but I can tell you that it began at some point in the 1880s. And it seems to me, through my expeditions into the wilds of the internet to learn about quilt history and culture and to find those photographs that I love so much, that toward the turn of the 20th century, a good number of professional folklorists and amateur folklorists were doing work on material culture: specifically, quilts.
Quilts are not stories (or are they???) but they are certainly based in custom. They are traditional objects. They are passed from generation to generation, either literally or via the teaching of the quiltmaking process. Quilts get to play in the fields of folklore, and vice versa.
“Folklife” studies, initiatives, and programs in the past 30 years or so—and many of them have waned due to a lack of funding, which is a crime—have involved looking at the quilts and quilt culture of a particular people or region.
For example, in 1978, a folklorist named Geraldine Johnson did a huge survey of the quilts of the Blueridge Parkway region of North Carolina…which I discovered when I was looking for photographs, since many of Johnson’s pictures are now kept in the Library of Congress and can be viewed there. Also, in the 1970s, the mighty Laurel Horton came on the scene and, from what I read in her CV, she was hot on the quilt trail from the start.
Young, Kay, and Barre Toelken. Quilting. Miles City Montana United States, 1979. Miles City, Montana, August 8. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/afc1981005_11_22911/. More recently, folklorist Dr. Susan Roach at Louisiana Tech University delivered a huge amount of research on quilts in her state around the time of the Louisiana Folklife Festival in 2004.
And though it’s less centered on research and more on, well, shopping, the Kutztown Folk Festival in Pennsylvania hosts “America’s largest quilt sale,” with more than 2,500 locally made quilts on display and available for purchase. You won’t find professional folklorists’ dissertations on quilts in the folklore traditions of Kutztown, but you don’t really need them: the folklore is right in front of you.
I suppose this column is a thank-you note to those folklorists out there who study quilts in particular. There are lots of scholars in universities who study quilts but are not trained specifically in folklore; I thank them, too. But to look at quilts specifically through the lens of community tradition and custom, this makes a lot of sense to me. The immersion approach, you might say. There’s a lot to be said for that approach, so hats off to you.
To my knowledge, there has not been a deep investigation into whether John Henry, Babe The Blue Ox, or Bigfoot had a quilting practice, but if any of them did, it’s the folklorist who will find out.