A quilt is essentially the combination of three layers of textile—a top, a back, and batting in between—secured by stitches through all three layers. Generations of Mississippi women have made quilts, whether for their family’s comfort or to display their domestic skill. The tradition continues today with modern tools and organizations devoted to the promotion and advancement of the art of quilting.
From the late eighteenth century to the 1940s, a quilt was the most common bedcovering among Mississippi families regardless of social, economic, or racial background. Pioneers and plantation families spent time recycling older textiles and clothing—old shirts, blankets, and even feed sacks—into bedcoverings that offered warmth and comfort to those who sheltered under their roofs. Women and girls usually were tasked with the creation and maintenance of such domestic comforts, but many young boys helped to piece patchwork or quilt on communal projects.
Such quilts were primarily utilitarian, but quilts occasionally were much more, displaying exceptional skill or perhaps artistic expression. Family pride and appreciation preserved many exquisite examples of patchwork, appliqué, and embroidery through centuries of Mississippi life and hardships. Textiles are by nature fragile and generally short-lived, but many Mississippi quilts were saved in simple and extraordinary ways from the ravages of the Civil War, the Great Depression, hurricanes, house fires, floods, relocations, and countless other events.
After World War II the increased availability of store-bought textiles and the movement of greater numbers of women into careers outside the home reduced the necessity of quilt making. But quilting survived as a pleasant pastime and as an important source of artistic expression and social interaction for women. Around 1976 quilting experienced a national revival as women began to have more leisure time and returned to their quilting roots for purposes of personal creativity and expression.
In the twenty-first century quilting is thriving internationally, as a multi-billion-dollar industry offers fabrics, machines, tools, and publications. Mississippi has numerous local quilting guilds whose members meet regularly to share their love of quilting as well as shops dedicated to supplying quilters’ needs. The state also hosts frequent exhibitions of the beautiful and increasingly creative works of art produced by Mississippi quilters.
Quilters from the state have taken top honors at prestigious American quilt shows and have been recognized and honored by institutions such as the Smithsonian Institution at the Festival of American Folk Art. Quilts by Martha Skelton of Vicksburg, Judy Spiers of Foxworth, and Barbara Newman of Brandon are in the collection of the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky.
Much of what we know about the history of quilts in Mississippi results from the efforts of the Mississippi Quilt Association (MQA), formed in the early 1990s. Though smaller quilting guilds operated in various communities, the MQA offered expanded educational opportunities and a statewide social network. In addition, the group worked to document the state’s quilting history, photographing and collecting provenance and historical data on almost two thousand quilts, some from as early as the 1830s.
The information collected was published in Mississippi Quilts (2001), a landmark historical record of the state’s quilting culture from the earliest settlement through 1946. In addition to quilt photographs by J. D. Schwalm, the book features photographs by Eudora Welty and quotations from her work as well as photographs of and information on modern Mississippi quilting luminaries.
Today, MQA has about five hundred members in Mississippi and its neighboring states. Each year, the group hosts spring, fall, and June “gatherings” where quilters can attend workshops and learn new techniques, see works of art, and meet others who share their love of quilting.
- Mary Elizabeth Johnson, Mississippi Quilts (2001); Mississippi Quilt Association website, www.mississippiquilt.org