Martha Butcher Skelton stands among the preeminent quilters in Mississippi and indeed in the nation. Born in West Virginia on 22 July 1919 to William Henry Harrison Butcher and Katie Virginia Guthrie Butcher, Martha was reared in Oklahoma and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Oklahoma in 1939 and 1940. On 26 January 1940 she married Alan Skelton, and they moved to Vicksburg in 1947.
While she was growing up, she spent long evenings doing needlework of all kinds—embroidery, crocheting, knitting, sewing, and quilting—with her mother, five aunts, two grandmothers, and four sisters. She pieced a quilt top in 1934–35 for her hope chest, and over the next seven decades, she produced about two hundred more quilts.
As a wife and mother in Vicksburg during the 1950s and 1960s, Skelton knew no other quilters. But as her children grew older, she found more time to devote to her art, and in 1973 she began teaching quilting in a Vicksburg department store. At around the same time, she also started giving quilting classes for the Cooperative Extension Service, traveling all over Mississippi, and she organized a quilting bee at the Mississippi State Fair. For about a decade beginning in 1992 Skelton worked with the Cultural Crossroads in Port Gibson.
In 1974 the Smithsonian Institution invited Skelton to demonstrate quilting at the Smithsonian American Folklife Festival, held on the Mall in Washington, D.C., for four days in July, establishing her as one of the state’s premier heritage crafts practitioners. The Smithsonian invited her again in 1997 as part of its celebration of the folkways of the Mississippi River Delta.
Skelton began entering quilt contests in 1979 and immediately started collecting prizes. In 1987 the American Quilter’s awarded New York Beauty first place and purchased the quilt for its permanent collection. The quilt was subsequently exhibited at the 1987 Cotton Patchers’ Quilt Show, featured in the fall 1987 issue of The American Quilter, and published in both the 1991 and 2001 editions of MAQS Quilts: The Permanent Collection. Probably the best known of all of Skelton’s quilts is Chips and Whetstones, which took second place in its category at the 1988 American Quilter’s Society show and appeared on the cover of the winter 1989–90 issue of Quilt Digest, in the fall 1988 issue of American Quilter and again on the magazine’s cover in the winter of 1995, and in numerous other magazines and books. In addition, her quilts have been featured in A Garden of Quilts (1981), The Quilt: Beauty in Fabric and Thread (1997), and Mastering Quilt Marking (1999) as well as in magazines and on calendars.
Martha Skelton’s lifetime production ranks among the most prolific of contemporary quilters. Skelton frequently exhibited her quilts in Vicksburg, Hattiesburg, and Jackson as well as at other venues across the state and around the world, including the International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas, and New York’s Museum of American Folk Art. Three of her quilts are in the collections of the State Historical Museum at the Old Capitol in Jackson.
Skelton died in Vicksburg on 4 November 2008.
- Mary Elizabeth Johnson, Martha Skelton: Master Quilter of Mississippi (2008)
- Vicksburg Post (6 November 2008)