Southlandish! * Heirloom Quilts


Heirloom Quilts   { Featured Southerly }

When I was 19 my grandmother told me she was afraid she would die before I got married, so she went ahead and gave me what she called my “wedding quilt.”

To this day, I am not certain if her gesture was motivated more by her own sense of mortality or by her doubts as to my ever marrying.

Of course, that was almost 20 years ago. My grandmother is now 103, and I’m, well, not 19 anymore, and, moreover, have been married for 13 years.

So it appears that my grandmother and I both beat the odds of the wedding quilt.

The quilt itself is a bright pink, hand-stitched creation in a unique bow-tie pattern, which has turned out to be one of several quilts my grandmother has passed along to me and the piece that first piqued in my interest in the time-worn tradition of heirloom quilting.

drunkard's path quilt

My very favorite of these quilts happens to be the oldest: a many-colored pattern known as drunkard’s path, which she says was the quilt she learned on, completing it with her step-mother and using cotton grown in their own backyard for the batting, some of which is visible now as the top fabric has been worn away in places.

While these quilts are certainly a special inheritance, a beautiful heirloom of the everyday, a piecing together of hard times with pretty bits, these were also working quilts, crafted all those years ago from scraps and sacks, from tattered dresses and worn-out garments, for use, for warmth, for family.

And that’s how I primarily remember these quilts, among so many others, as functional pieces put to real use, usually as pallets in the floor of my grandmother’s very small house in Ewing, Virginia, a tiny, rural Appalachian town not too far from Harlan, Kentucky.

When she came to say good night, my grandmother never failed to layer all of us pallet-sleepers (usually me and my brother and our cousins) with quilt after quilt to assure herself that we would be warm during the night.

No amount of protesting on our part was ever enough to convince her that we were, in fact, perfectly fine. And even then sometimes when we woke up in the morning, one or two more blankets would have been added to the top of pile.

I remember this heap of blankets more for being heavy than for being warm. But I’ll say this: I never did get cold.

Southerly *

Admittedly, quilting is not a tradition exclusive to the American South. After all, a quilt is just a bound coverlet with three layers: the top layer is usually decorative, featuring either an appliqued or pieced patchwork pattern; the center layer consists of cotton or wool batting; and the third layer is typically a plain backing.

But quilts came to be more commonly associated with the South because, quite frankly, the South was a lot poorer than other regions of the country for a lot longer of a time.

Since industrialization and the factory system didn’t really take hold in the South with widespread impact until after World War I, Southerners, especially those in the more rural areas (like Appalachia) did not have as much access to mass-produced goods–or the money to buy them with–as people in other areas of the country.

So as more and more people around the nation were doing fewer things by hand and buying more things from stores, for much of the twentieth century Southerners just kept on making what they needed when they needed it from their own homes.

Hence, “southern folk arts and crafts today enjoy relatively high visibility, and homemade items are often presented as emblematic of the region [when] what one really sees…is a national pattern that has simply survived longer in the South than elsewhere.” *

And blankets–quilts–happened to be one of those items.

Two traditions *

In the South, one typically finds two different quilting traditions–Anglo-American and Afro-American. Distinct though each tradition is, there is often also much borrowing and exchanging between them.

quilt_dresdenplate2The Anglo-American tradition has British roots, coming over to this country with the early colonists, and favors bilateral symmetry and a sense of proportion, order, and balance.

While Anglo-American “fancy” quilts were mainly applique quilts, crafted as decorative coverings with delicate stitching and elaborate patterns, the much more common quilt “everyday” patchwork quilt was a homespun “salvage craft” typically made with “bright or pastel printed fabrics and intricate patterns.” *

Standard quilt patterns of this tradition include Double Wedding Ring, Flower Garden, Eight Pointed Star, and Nine Patch (among so many others!).


Where the Anglo-American quilting tradition centers primarily on symmetry and order, the Afro-American quilting tradition strongly values innovation and improvisation, exploring new possibilities with “unlikely blendings of motifs, inversions of common patterns, and the layering of embellishments on standard forms,” creating a kind of emergent quality expressive of the individual creativity, rhythms, and tensions at work within a conventional form. **


Primary among the defining features of Afro-American pieced quilts are the use of strips, asymmetry, big designs, bold colors, and varying patterns, with squares that generally do not repeat but vary in color, placement, and size.***

Such design techniques are rooted in African textile traditions, in which bright colors and big patterns denoted “social status, wealth, occupation, and history” and insured “readability at a distance, in strong sunlight.” *** Standard pieced patchwork quilt patterns of this tradition include Log Cabin, Strip, and Medallion or Star.


Applique quilts, in which smaller designs are sewn onto a larger whole, employ dominant shapes to tell a story, such as a family history, a Bible story, a court record, the narrative of a famous individual, etc., and promote strong personal values like wisdom, courage, and valor.

Although both the Anglo-American and the Afro-American quilting traditions have their distinct and rather easily recognizably characteristics, over time and through the exchanges of style and construction, the two traditions have fused, creating an enduring folkway emblematic of one region with a dense and twining history worthy of heaps and heaps of story-telling quilts.

Lagniappe (a little something thrown in for good measure):

* For the curious, the following link to The Quilt Index provides many samples of dozens of different kinds of quilting patterns: The Quilt Index pattern search gallery

* It is always hard to discuss quilts without automatically thinking of Alice Walker’s brilliant short story Everyday Use, in which quilts symbolizes various interpretations of the meaning of heritage.

And so for the truly diehard, here is a link to the full text: Everyday Use by Alice Walker

* Here is a link to an interview with Alice Walker wherein she discusses this short story:

And a link to a short film clip from a dramatized version of the short story:

The quilting traditions are also referred to as European-American and African-American.

Sources, from Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Eds. Charles Reagan Wilson & William Ferris. Chapel Hill: U of NCP, 1989.

  • Vlach, John Michael. “Arts and Crafts.” 461.

** —–. “Aesthetic, Afro-American.” 457-458.

*** Wahlman, Maude Southwell. “Quilting, Afro-American.” 517-518.

**** Afro-American quilt images courtesy of A Piece of My Soul: Quilts by Black Arkansans

***** applique quilt image courtesy of Southern Quilting: 7 Southern Quilters @

unless otherwise noted * graphics, photographs, text © 2014-2017 hilary hall