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A commom thread.

Piecing together the rich history of quilting in Mississippi is really a retelling of the story of the state itself. But this record of fabric, thread, and artistry unfolds, a stitch at a time, through the lives of the women whose hands and hearts lived and felt it through the centuries--women as strong, colorful, and unique as the quilts themselves.

Regardless of race, circumstances, or resources, and whether for utility or decoration, generations of Mississippi women have displayed their ingenuity and creativity through the timeless art of quilting.

From the settlement days of the territory through the sweeping changes of the 20th century and beyond, quiltmaking in Mississippi bas not only survived but thrived. Often more than other more expensive possessions, quilts were considered important pieces of a family's heritage, passed down through generations with a proud legacy of artistic accomplishment and family history.

The state's oldest known quilts of toile and chintz, made in the late 1700s, reflected the wealth and social status of the women who brought them to the new territory. During Mississippi's antebellum period, with new fabrics available and slave labor often recruited for sewing, many decorative "high style" quilts were turned out. Many of these were destroyed or used for soldiers' uniforms, family garments, or even bandages during the war and subsequent rebuilding years. Even then, women continued making quilts, fashioned in much more utilitarian styles. Next was a period of great inventiveness and creativity at the end of the 19th century, as commercial patterns were introduced and more women tried the skill for the first time. The early 20th century saw a decline in interest in quilting as populations began to become more urban. "Crazy quilts," commemorating events of the makers' lives, became a fad, and the popularity of string quilts grew, as an African influence emerged in bolder designs and colors. The years from 1930 to 1945 saw an explosion in quilt production, followed by another decline during the 1950s and '60s as an abundance of "store-bought" bed coverings became available. Fortunately for our collective heritage, an unprecedented renaissance in quiltmaking that began in the '70s continues today, making it more popular than any time in history.

The Mississippi Quilt Association's Heritage Quilt Search Project, completed nearly a decade ago, unraveled many pieces of the formerly untold story of quilting in the state. The volunteers of that group who traveled Mississippi's borders to document the role quilting has played in our history examined more than 1,700 quilts dating from the late 1700s through World War II. This monumental undertaking created a permanent record of quilts representative of styles of each historic period. The results have been housed in computer files at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and documented in the detailed book Mississippi Quilts by Mary Elizabeth Johnson.

The stories alone that came from the project made the researchers' tireless work priceless, as they gathered untold accounts of Mississippi's history unfolding through the creases of aged quilts. In Port Gibson, one small town's contrasting heritage has fashioned its own quilting traditions. (See "Quilting's Local Legacy," opposite page.)

Martha Skelton of Vicksburg, considered by many to be Mississippi's "matriarch" of quilting, has spent decades enthusiastically sharing the mechanics of the craft she has loved for a lifetime with quilters from every corner of the state.

Skelton brought her love of the art when she came to Mississippi from Oklahoma as a young bride in 1947--only to find few interested in the skill here.

Despite the declining interest in quilting around the country during the '50s and '60s, she continued practicing the craft, at last encouraged by the revival in quilting in the '70s. She credits its renewed popularity to a resurgence of interest in "handmade things."

"People aren't making quilts just for warmth anymore," Skelton says. "It's the satisfaction of creating something yourself, and you can always make it tell a story that you want to tell through the fabrics you choose, how you put them together, and how you combine the colors."

The availability of quilting resources has also boosted interest in the skill, Skelton says. "Now there are whole shops devoted entirely to quilting fabrics and patterns," along with plenty of magazines, books, shows, and museums dedicated to the pastime. "If you're interested at all in quilting, you can certainly find ideas everywhere," she says.

Skelton says she hopes the art form can preserve its legacy. "There are always young women who want to learn," she says, although she admits, "most aren't doing it by hand anymore. It's a trend of the times that people are interested in doing it quickly. They're going to the fast way of doing it with the (sewing) machine. Not very many of us stitch by hand now."

One modern-day quilter helping to secure the craft's legacy as an art form is Ruth Vinson Irwin of Meridian. For more than 30 years, she's turned out prize-winning traditional and "art" quilts created with paints or fabric crayons.

Irwin says quilting has always been practiced as an art form, beyond its utilitarian function. "We all do individual, different things with our quilting, and so has everyone else in history who's ever been a quilter."

Much of her motivation to quilt is driven by a desire to help the community, and she has used the medium to create projects to aid the Love's Kitchen soup kitchen and Peavey House children's shelter in Meridian.

"I put an artist's take on it," she says. "But you have to know the basics first, the traditional skills. I honestly think that it's an art that's never going to die."

Barbara Newman of Brandon, whose award-winning quilts have garnered national acclaim, is a former president of the Mississippi Quilt Association who was instrumental in bringing the Heritage Quilt Search Project to life. Newman says she quilts "for art accomplishment, It just makes you feel good."

A growing number of quilting guilds regularly gather around the state to stitch and visit, and the Quilt Association provides at least three statewide events for these groups each year, hosting workshops and retreats largely dedicated to education and fellowship among quilters.

Other support for quilting comes from grants from the Mississippi Arts Commission, some local government funding, and an occasional educational seminar hosted by a state college or university.

With membership in the Quilt Association at 400-plus, Newman says the strong interest in the craft among "more and more young mothers" has been fueled by an appreciation of its artistic and familial value--not to mention the convenience of today's high-tech, computerized sewing machines.

"Machine piecing and quilting has gone wild" among this group, Newman says, because "they can make something fast and have something to show for it. I do the traditional hand-stitching that takes three years to make an heirloom piece, but there's a place for both. When their children are older and they want to make them a keepsake quilt, they may have the time and the desire."

It seems history and technology have again come together in a seamless collaboration in a state where the past is treasured and the future is ever filled with possibilities. And this time, quilting is the common thread.
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Article Details
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Author:Hoops, Jana
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 2006
Previous Article:On the road again: a group of Vicksburg women spends weekends traveling in search of beauty and history in their home state.
Next Article:Quilting's local legacy.

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