Collection Quilts and Quiltmaking in America, 1978-1996Show Featured Items
Blue Ridge Quiltmaking in the Late Twentieth Century
by Laurel Horton, July 1999
- Map information accessed through the U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) Online Data Base, "our Nation's official repository of domestic geographic names information." Maps were originally generated by the U.S. Census Bureau's TIGER Mapping Service, "a public resource for generating high-quality, detailed maps of anywhere in the United States, using public geographic data." Map information was modified for illustration purposes.
- Map information drawn from MapArt Geopolitical Deluxe CDROM by Cartesia Software. Map information was modified for illustration purposes.
- Detail of Portrait of Zenna Todd, Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection, 1978
- Detail of Portrait of Mamie and Leonard Bryan on porch in front of bedspread, Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection, 1978
- Detail of Sabe and Donna Choate standing in front of quilt draped on fence, Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection, 1978
- Detail of Portrait of Ila Patton, Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection, 1978
- Detail of Portrait of Maggie Shockley, Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection, 1978
- Detail of Seated portrait of Lura Stanley, Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection, 1978
On August 24, 1978, Geraldine Johnson was driving down a two-lane road in the North Carolina mountains when she spied quilts hanging on the porch of an old house. She immediately turned around, pulled into the driveway, and knocked at the back door.
Gerri Johnson wasn't a tourist or an antique dealer looking for quilts to buy. She was one of a team of folklorists involved in a research project to identify and document practitioners of traditional customs in the communities of North Carolina and Virginia along a section of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The project was conducted by the Library of Congress's American Folklife Center in cooperation with the National Park Service.
Of the twenty-one folklorists, photographers, Park Service employees, and interns involved in the fieldwork for this project, Gerri Johnson was one of only three women. She had conducted earlier research on rag-rug weavers in western Maryland and was particularly interested in documenting women's crafts for the Blue Ridge folklife survey. Arriving in the area, Johnson and her colleagues began their work by contacting local people in order to identify potential subjects to be interviewed. Johnson was on the way to an appointment when the sight of quilts hanging on a porch changed her plans.
Perhaps if Carrie Severt had not been airing her quilts on that particular day, Johnson would have driven past with only a glance at the handsome old farmhouse. Quilts are generally kept in the private parts of a house, in bedrooms and closets. They are rarely available for public display, and passersby have no way of knowing which houses on a rural road might be treasure troves of quilts. Most of the quiltmakers Johnson met were those whose names had been provided to her by relatives, friends, and craft shop managers. It wasn't her usual practice just to walk up to a house unannounced, but she considered this opportunity too good to pass up.
Of all the women that Gerri Johnson interviewed during the two months of the project, Carrie Severt most closely matched the folklorist's vision of a traditional quiltmaker. She made her quilts from leftover fabrics, combining them in old, familiar patterns to make serviceable yet attractive quilts which she then gave away to her children and grandchildren.
In the 1970s, many folklorists were seeking "authenticity." Concerned that changes in technology and lifestyle threatened the existence of many aspects of traditional culture, they concentrated their documentation efforts on those people who seemed least influenced by modern events. Since that time, more and more folklorists have broadened their field of study, looking at the ways traditions have changed and adapted rather than seeking only the "purest" examples of continuity. In 1978, however, this team of folklorists was looking for "authentic" mountain culture, and the resulting documents -- photographs, audio recordings, fieldnotes, and published articles -- provide a window through which to view the not-too-distant past.
Much of the project's significance results from historical and demographic circumstances. The majority of the subjects interviewed were elderly and had grown up in the area before World War II. This group formed a living link between the agrarian, farm based, pre-war local economy and the post-war period of accelerated development and change. The Blue Ridge Folklife Survey documented the lives of residents who still practiced traditions learned from their parents but who generally had little expectation that their children and grandchildren would continue them.
Although Johnson was looking for a particular kind of authentic "mountain quilter," what she actually found and documented was a much more complex range of quiltmaking activities that reflected both local, rural traditions and the influence of a national quilt revival. Rather than identifying a homogenous quiltmaking culture, she discovered that each woman's experience was unique. Taken together, the interviews and photographs demonstrate a wide variety of motivations, styles, and processes influencing the ways quilts were made and used in 1978 in this section of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
During the two months of the project, Gerri Johnson collected the names of many more quiltmakers than she had time or opportunity to contact. In the interviews she conducted, about two dozen informants mentioned quilts, and about half of these individuals were, or had been, active quiltmakers. Six of these women are featured in this collection through audio selections and photographs, while additional photographs show the work of other quiltmakers.
Quiltmaking was an integral part of American rural life during the early twentieth century. After quiltmaking declined in popularity during the 1950s and 1960s, there was a national revival of interest in it during the 1970s that led many women to take it up as a hobby. These new quilters often lacked any family connection with quilts. Instead of modeling their creations upon existing family quilts, they turned to books and magazines for examples.
Gerri Johnson was aware of the national quilt revival, and she worried that it would undermine the older, family-based traditions in the area she was studying. As evidence of an authentic quiltmaking tradition, Johnson looked for women who had learned to make quilts at home from relatives or friends rather than by taking classes, and who selected old, familiar, local patterns instead of getting new ones from books and magazines. She looked for women who made quilts to use as bedcovers rather than for decoration or as wall hangings. She was interested in women who gave quilts as gifts to family members rather than selling them to strangers. And she wanted to meet women who were mountain natives who considered quiltmaking a part of their everyday lives, not just a passing fancy.
The "quilting bee" that brought women together to work on a quilt is such a cherished activity in the popular mind that some writers consider it a metaphor for democracy. Quilting in groups has a long and varied history in the United States, but the need for the romantic image largely overshadows its reality. During the twentieth century, most group quilting has taken place in churches to raise money for capital expenditures or for foreign or domestic missions. Gerri Johnson documented two group-quilting activities, but she noted that one of these groups rarely met. Instead, its members set the quilt up in a central location and dropped in to quilt when they could. By 1978, the active lives of many Americans, even those past retirement age, made it difficult to coordinate group activity.
For many Americans, the Appalachian region has become stereotypically associated with poverty. Indeed, the "boom and bust" economic cycles associated with extractive industries, principally coal mining and logging, along with the difficulties of operating small farms, have contributed to a chronically depressed economy in the region. However, as Gerri Johnson found, the region reflects a wide range of economic circumstance, from great poverty to great wealth. Because the rugged terrain and natural beauty of the region have attracted large numbers of tourists since the end of the nineteenth century, early economic development efforts often involved encouraging or teaching local residents to make crafts to sell to tourists. These early efforts were so successful that, even today, there is a widespread belief that craft items made in the mountains are better or more "authentic" than identical items made in other parts of the country.
While the influence of the tourist industry on the production of mountain crafts dates back to the early twentieth century, the federal government's "War on Poverty" programs spurred the formation of additional craft cooperatives during the late 1960s and 1970s. Gerri Johnson visited a number of craft shops scattered along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Some of these, she felt, did an excellent job of marketing the work of local crafters, while others sold work that was neither local nor traditional. While some of the craft shop managers were helpful in providing the names of quilters, others feared that the quilt documentation project would cost them sales.
Since 1978, the market for handmade quilts has undergone a radical transformation. As American quiltmakers began to charge higher prices for their work, enterprising companies responded to the popular demand for inexpensive quilts by importing copies of American traditional quilts from developing countries such as Haiti and China. Competition from imported quilts has had a serious impact on the sales of American hand crafted quilts.
Much has changed since Johnson interviewed mountain quiltmakers in 1978. Most of these women have died, and their quilts have been distributed among family and friends. The national quiltmaking revival has had a widespread impact, as younger women have taken up the craft with enthusiasm. Quilters of all ages have formed clubs and guilds, attend classes to learn new techniques, and buy new fabric to make quilts that are primarily decorative. Local and regional exhibitions display both historic and contemporary quilts.
As the collective memory of older quiltmakers fades, new quilters create memories of their own. What links the generations, however, is a profound respect for the traditions of the past. Younger quilters typically express a fascination with earlier quilts and their makers. They often say that while making a quilt, they feel connected spiritually to a long line of creative and resourceful women. Although the lives of these younger women are very different from the lives of those who grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the early twentieth century, they share a recognition of the creative spirit and an appreciation of a shared tradition.
by Laurel Horton, July 1999
Mamie Lee Parks Bryan was born in 1900 in Alleghany County, North Carolina. She married Leonard Bryan in 1914, and they lived in the vicinity of Sparta, North Carolina. Leonard Bryan worked as a coal miner in West Virginia for thirty-two years in a company house and returning home, along with other North Carolina men, every two weeks.
Mamie and Leonard Bryan had six children: two sons and a daughter who died in childhood, and three daughters who survived. Mamie Bryan assumed responsibility for the home, family, and farm while her husband worked away from home.
Mamie Bryan learned to make quilts from her husband's mother, Alice Goans Bryan. Mamie Bryan made quilts to keep her family warm and because quilting provided a pleasant way to keep busy and productive while her husband was working in West Virginia or out foxhunting at night. At the time of the interview in 1978, Mrs. Bryan had not made quilts for several years because of failing eyesight.
Mrs. Bryan pieced her quilts by hand, using remnants from the clothing she sewed for her family. At times she also recycled the good parts of worn-out family clothing into quilts. She recalled purchasing the fabrics to make a special "silk" quilt. (Satin-woven rayon or acetate fabrics are often referred to as "artificial silk" because they were designed to imitate the luster, fine texture, and light weight of natural silk.) For quilt linings, she purchased "factory cloth," a plain woven product manufactured in cotton mills in the nearby Piedmont region of North Carolina and sold in local stores. She also reused the cotton sacks from animal feed, a popular free source of fabric for thrifty families during the 1930s and 1940s. Typically she purchased Diamond brand dyes to color the plain white fabrics for her quilt linings. For one particular quilt, Mrs. Bryan used two purchased "countypins" (counterpanes) for the top and bottom. (The term "counterpane" can designate many different types of bedcover; here it refers to one designed to serve as a decorative bedspread rather than as a blanket to be covered up.)
Mrs. Bryan's method of making quilts reflected a number of factors. First, she was a busy person with many responsibilities, and she adopted methods that allowed her to complete her work quickly and efficiently. Second, she had limited access to materials, so she sought to make the best use of what she had. Large remnants were left large and were squared off to make them easy to join with others. Smaller scraps were saved up and combined to make tops. Third, Mrs. Bryan had limited exposure to commercial quilt patterns. Her quilts generally followed examples set by earlier, locally made, utilitarian quilts. Fourth, her quilts reflect an African-American design aesthetic, and some of Mrs. Bryan's quilts resemble those made by other African-American quiltmakers, particularly in the southeastern United States.
The quilts that Mrs. Bryan made for everyday use were typically pieced from large squares, rectangles, or strips. Her mother-in-law had made a counterpane (an unquilted appliqued bedspread) using the "Dutch Girl" pattern. (The particular version made by Alice Bryan closely resembles the "Colonial Lady" pattern published in the 1930s by the Grandma Dexter, part of the Dexter Yarn and Thread Company of Elgin, Illinois.) Mamie Bryan converted the counterpane into a quilt by tufting it with knots similar to embroidered French knots. (There is evidence of a larger tradition of tufted bedspreads in northwestern North Carolina during the first half of the twentieth century. However, those bedspreads were typically made using white yarn on plain white fabric.)
Mamie Bryan's mother-in-law was also her source for the "Log Cabin" pattern. After making four blocks with this pattern, however, Mrs. Bryan decided that the process was too slow, and she completed the quilt by making blocks in a more familiar free-form manner.
Mamie Bryan quilted some of her tops and tacked others, especially the heavier ones. She quilted during the winter months, setting up her frame in the living room near the fire.
Mamie Bryan made quilts to meet the physical needs of her family. She also used quiltmaking as a form of creative expression, choosing and rearranging colors "to make them look pretty." She gave quilts to her children, but reported that her children preferred to use blankets, as quilts were considered to be old-fashioned. At the time of the interview, Mrs. Bryan was focusing her creative energy on growing flowers around her house.
by Laurel Horton, July 1999
Ila Frances Hale Patton was born on September 9, 1905, in Galax (Grayson County), Virginia. She married Oscar Roy Patton and they raised their children in the same area. At the time of the interview, in 1978, Mrs. Patton lived with her daughter in her husband's family home. The white frame house, locally called the Patton Plantation, is located on a hillside overlooking the New River.
Mrs. Patton recalled helping her grandmother in both piecing and quilting by the time she was twelve or fourteen years old. Her grandmother also wove blankets on a loom. Mrs. Patton recalled doing a lot of crocheting and embroidering during her young adulthood. At the time of the interview, she had not been an active quiltmaker for several years because of failing eyesight.
In addition to making patterned quilts, such as those with the "Poplar Leaf" and "Sawtooth" designs, Mrs. Patton recalled that she frequently made "crazy" quilts. From her detailed description of the process, these seem to have been what are more frequently called "string" quilts. Both crazy and string patchwork are typically done by sewing small pieces of cloth onto a paper or cloth foundation. Mrs. Patton described sewing narrow strips together, as in string patchwork, rather than assembling the irregularly shaped pieces more typical of crazy quilts. At the time when Mrs. Patton was interviewed and her quilts were photographed, she no longer had any of her crazy quilts.
Ila Patton made quilts for family use. She recalled that because the house was heated by the fireplace or a wood heater, there were three or four quilts on each bed to keep her family warm at night. During the summer Mrs. Patton had a lot of gardening and canning to do, so she generally quilted in the wintertime. She remembered putting a quilt in the frame in the morning and often finishing it in a single day. Occasionally three or four friends might work together, but she did most of her quilting alone. Sometimes she hung her frame by cords from the ceiling so that it could be rolled up out of the way in the evening. At other times she rested the corners of the frame on the backs of chairs.
Mrs. Patton recalled a number of different ways she used to quilt tops. She often quilted in fans, in straight lines across the top, or in other simple designs. Thick, heavy quilts were often tacked, or tied with yarn knots. Mrs. Patton described a method called "secret tacking," which involved running a needle through the filler and bringing it out to make a stitch about every inch or inch-and-a-half. This method was quicker than conventional handquilting, but more attractive than tacking. Mrs. Patton also described a method for marking straight lines for quilting by dipping a string in a thin paste of flour and water, holding it tightly across the quilt top, and snapping it to transfer a thin straight line onto the fabric.
Mrs. Patton first learned to piece quilts by hand, but she also did a lot of piecing on the sewing machine. While her earlier quilts were produced for family use, in later years she continued to quilt for pleasure and in order to produce beautiful objects. During the 1970s she made a "Cathedral Window" quilt, a type that was extremely popular throughout the country at that time. Unlike typical quilts in which the top is constructed and then joined with two other layers to form the finished quilt, the "Cathedral Window" is formed by folding and sewing squares of fabric together. Contrasting squares of fabric are inserted across the seams, producing an interlocking curved design. A "Cathedral Window" does not require quilting, which is considered an advantage by many quilters, particularly those with poor eyesight or limited mobility.
Mrs. Patton made many quilts for her children. She also helped others by quilting their tops for hire. At the time of the interview, Mrs. Patton no longer used quilts on her bed. Instead, she had used an electric blanket for ten or fifteen years.
by Laurel Horton, July 1999
Maggie Cochran Shockley was born on April 4, 1913, in Hillsville (Carroll County), Virginia. She graduated from Hillsville High School but was unable to go to college at that time. She married Everett Shockley and they raised three children. Mrs. Shockley worked as a farm wife, cultivating a garden and orchards, preserving the produce, and maintaining livestock. At the age of fifty-six she enrolled in college and attended for three years. Although she did not get a degree -- "Math was a little hard" -- she worked as a teacher's aide for eight years, helping retarded students with reading and math. At the time of the interview in 1978, Mrs. Shockley had left her job in order to care for her mother, who was ninety-five.
Her mother, Sybella Cochran, was born in Carroll County, Virginia, on August 21, 1883. She was the oldest of eight children. When she was orphaned at age fifteen, she and her siblings went to live with different families, and Sybella learned to make quilts from the women she lived with. She married Norman Cochran (a carpenter who later went into the cattle business) and they raised seven children.
Maggie Shockley estimated that her mother had made "thousands" of quilts in her lifetime. Until she was about ninety years old, Mrs. Cochran made each of her children and grandchildren a quilt each year for Christmas. She also gave away many quilts, and others that she made were used by the family. Mrs. Shockley had accumulated so many of her mother's unquilted tops that she had sold some at a flea market several years before the interview.
Maggie Shockley had her mother's collection of fabric piecework pattern blocks. Many quiltmakers, upon acquiring a new pattern, made one block as a sample. The collection of blocks served as a reference from which the quiltmaker could select a pattern and remind herself of how it went together.
Maggie Shockley described how she and her mother made "crazy quilts" and "string quilts," both of which were usually pieced on a foundation of paper. Mrs.Shockley recalled that for her first attempts at patchwork, her mother cut diamonds from paper and gave her daughters only the smallest "strings," narrow strips. "Anything over an inch, we didn't get hold of." She sewed the strings onto the paper diamonds, which her mother then combined to make eight-pointed stars. Maggie and her sisters learned to quilt from their mother, gathering around the frame, being very careful to make small stitches.
Maggie Shockley recalled that her mother sometimes used feed sacks for quilt linings and that one time she collected enough Prince Albert smoking-tobacco sacks to make a quilt lining. This was considered quite a feat, as the tobacco bags were only about five inches square. Her mother also unraveled the tops of worn-out socks and used the yarn to quilt.
Maggie Shockley made quilts while her children were small. She typically put her quilt in the frame at five o'clock in the morning, when her husband left for work, and finished it by the time he got home in the evening. When the three boys were in school, she sometimes quilted "about all day long." She did her quilting in the winter months, when she had fewer farm responsibilities.
Maggie Shockley had done little quiltmaking for some years before the interview. However, she and her sister had recently set up a quilt frame at their mother's house so that they could quilt while caring for her. Mrs. Shockley reported that the quilt had been "in" almost two weeks and that they were about half finished.
During the 1960s Mrs. Shockley quilted with a group from her church, quilting tops for hire and making quilts to sell, but that activity had ended. At the time of the interview Mrs. Shockley was continuing to sell some of the tops she made. She had made quilts for her children and grandchildren, and she was then completing the last of three "Cathedral Window" quilts, one for each of her sons.
Mrs. Shockley made her quilts from sewing remnants, and she frequently received scraps from neighbors and friends. She also ordered cutaways (remnants from the process of cutting out clothing) from factories, pointing out that she could specify light or dark colors. She remembered buying special fabric for only two of her quilts.
In the years leading up to the interview, Mrs. Shockley had developed a greater appreciation for the lasting value of her quilts. "Mom did a lot of these and she's going to be gone. And I thought, well you know, if I feel that way about my mother's quilts, then my children will probably feel the same way in years to come about the ones I have done."
by Laurel Horton, July 1999
Donna Greer Choate was born on September 25, 1909, in Baywood (Grayson County), Virginia. Her parents were James and Lucinda Brown Greer, and her grandmother had been a slave. After the death of her mother, Lucinda Brown had been raised by a white family, who enabled her to attend school.
The Greer children attended school through the seventh grade, but opportunities for further education for African-American children were limited. Other than her sisters and brothers, there were no other black children living in the area, Mrs. Choate recalled. In 1921, the family moved to Alleghany County, North Carolina, where Donna met Sabe Choate. After working on a dairy farm in Maryland from 1927 to 1933, Sabe Choate returned to Sparta and the two were married. Sabe Choate purchased land from his grandfather, Jeff Choate, a farmer and blacksmith, and built a house one or two rooms at a time. At the time of the interview in 1978, the Choates had one daughter, who was living in Chicago, four grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.
As a child Donna Choate learned to make quilts from her mother. She first learned to piece by hand; later she did most of her piecing on the sewing machine. She and her mother used scraps left over from making clothing and occasionally recycled the remaining good parts of wool clothing. They recycled flour and feed sacks for linings, usually dyeing the white lining fabric with purchased dye so that it would not show dirt.
Mrs. Choate acquired some of her piecework patterns, including "Around the World," from white women she worked for. She also described a "Flower Basket" pattern that her mother had used. She often made quilts from whole cloth, sewing two lengths of uncut fabric together for the top and quilting it.
Donna Choate quilted alone, on a large frame resting on the backs of chairs in her living room. She recalled that her mother would sometimes have quiltings, inviting three or four women to help her quilt or tack one or two quilts in a day. Her mother often quilted in a "half moon" design, which, from her description, is similar to quilting in fans.
Mrs. Choate recalled that she generally quilted during the wintertime, after Christmas. At the time of the interview, she had not made any quilts in several years. After making several quilts in one winter, she developed bursitis in her arm, which made quilting painful. Her house was warmer than in the past, so she and her husband did not need as many quilts at night. She had given many quilts to her daughter and grandchildren, keeping "just enough to cover the beds if I have company."
At the time of the interview, Donna Choate remarked that not many people she knew were making quilts anymore. "You hardly ever hear tell of anyone making a quilt."
by Laurel Horton, July 1999
Zenna Bottomly Todd was born on June 1, 1916, in Ennice (Alleghany County), North Carolina, and at the time of the interview in 1978, she had lived practically all her life in the same area. She married in 1934 and raised three sons. She remembered starting to make quilts when she was twenty-five years old. At that time she made "crazy quilts" which were tacked rather than quilted. Her first patterned quilt was a "Monkey Wrench" made in 1936 or 1937. Her mother-in-law offered to help set up a frame and show her how to quilt, but neglected to tell Zenna how to pull the knots through to the middle layer so that they would not show on the lining. Zenna Todd was quilting with black thread, and when she saw the back of the part she had quilted, it looked "like flies a-setting on the lining."
Zenna Todd made her early quilts for family use, but her quiltmaking later was primarily an enjoyable pastime. In 1972, she taught a quilting class sponsored by the Blue Ridge Opportunity Commission, an anti-poverty program, at a local community college. By 1978, Mrs. Todd was making quilts to sell in local craft shops. A few years before, she had begun embroidering her name and the date on the back of the quilts she made.
Mrs. Todd considered coordinating colors the hardest part of quiltmaking. She bought fabrics whenever she found appropriate colors and prints at a good price. At one time she had been able to get "cutaways," remnants from a blouse factory, but by 1978 the factory no longer made them available. "The cheaper you get your material, the less you have in your quilt," Mrs. Todd said. She noted that the craft shops only wanted quilts made with cotton fabrics, not polyester.
Zenna Todd liked making the "Double Wedding Ring" pattern, even though it is hard to put together. She noted that once one begins piecing this pattern, it is better to finish it before switching to another pattern. "If you change off on another one, and then you come back to the 'Double Wedding Ring,' you have to concentrate, and it's hard to do." Mrs. Todd had a lot of "hand-me-down" patterns from family and friends, and she also acquired patterns from magazines like Quilt World.
Zenna Todd learned to quilt in the fan design from her mother-in-law, marking the semi circular curves with a string and a pencil. At the time of the interview, fan quilting was considered old-fashioned and undesirable for the quilts sold at craft shops. Mrs. Todd usually starts quilting during the winter, after Christmas. She sets up her frame in the bedroom and leaves it up until she has quilted four or five tops. It usually takes her about a week to quilt one quilt. "When I get started, I just go at it . . . I'd put maybe eight, nine hours on it. You can do a right much in that length of time."
The only time Mrs. Todd had quilted with a group was when she taught her quilting class. Once, too, she and other quilters were asked to demonstrate quilting at the Union Grove Fiddlers' Convention. "A lot of people would come in and want to make pictures, you know, and want to see us do it, that hadn't ever seen nothing like that a-going on. And it was, it was very interesting."
In 1976, to celebrate the Bicentennial, Zenna Todd made a wall hanging featuring a log cabin and a silhouette of George Washington. She also made an "Eagle" quilt, and both quilts were sold through local craft shops.
Zenna Todd's mother-in-law was ninety years old and still piecing quilts at the time of the interview in 1978. Because of her failing eyesight, her needlework was not considered by the family to match the quality of her earlier work, and family members complained about the mess she made. However, Zenna Todd told them "Now, let her alone. Let her work at that . . . If she's contented to that, let her do it." Mrs. Todd also described a conversation that took place when she sold crafts at a flea market. A woman stopped at the table and wondered why her mother couldn't take up a craft hobby, since all she did was "take nerve pills and complain." Mrs. Todd thought that people should have something they can do to occupy their time productively when they retire.
by Laurel Horton, July 1999
Lura Brascombe Stanley was born on May 12, 1906, in Laurel Fork (Carroll County), Virginia. Her parents, James P. and Mary Ruth Dickerson Brascombe, were farmers, and the family raised its own food and made much of its own clothing. Lura's mother had a loom and wove blankets, some of which Lura still owned at the time of the interview in 1978. Lura Stanley said she "loved beautiful quilts even when I was a little girl, and I wanted to make one." Her mother gave her some scraps to piece for a quilt and then quilted it for her after Lura completed the top.
Lura Stanley's ambition was to be a teacher. She started teaching in local schools when she was eighteen years old, at a time when teachers were not required to have a college degree. She left teaching when she married Charles J. Stanley. During World War II there was a shortage of teachers (probably because of the large number of women working in factories), and, although she still had small children at home, Mrs. Stanley agreed to return to teaching at that time. She then attended Radford College, earned a B.S. degree in 1957, and taught until her retirement in 1971.
After her marriage Lura Stanley made quilts for her family to use. She stopped quilting during the years when she was teaching and attending college, but she did a lot of knitting during that time. After retirement she resumed quiltmaking, inspired by "seeing all these beautiful quilts in the magazines and at the shops." She was not interested in selling her quilts. "There's too much time and effort put in a quilt for me to sell . . . I don't think people would pay me what I'd have to have for my quilts."
Lura Stanley pieced most of her quilts by hand because she felt that it enabled her to match her seams more accurately. At the time of the interview she was living alone and considered quiltmaking a pleasant pastime. She had pieced and quilted four quilts the previous year. "I put right much quilting on my quilts, so it takes a while. . . I have ten grandchildren, and I hope to give each one a quilt, if I live long enough to make them. . . I have about five more to go." She hoped that the people who received her quilts would enjoy using them but would also take care of them so that they will last. "Use but not abuse," she said.
Mrs. Stanley acquired some of her piecework patterns from friends and some from quilt books and magazines, and she had also ordered patterns from the Mountain Mist company. Some of her favorite patterns included the "Turkey Track," the "Dresden Plate," the "Lone Star," and the "Double Wedding Ring." For most quilts, she did not have to order the pattern because she could draft her own templates after looking at a picture of the block. She also found ideas for quilting designs in books, and sometimes she worked out a quilting design to suit a particular quilt top.
Lura Stanley quilted during the wintertime. "I like to garden and travel . . . I'm an outdoors person. And so I don't quilt in the summertime. Winter, when you have to stay in, when the roads are bad and the weather's bad. That's when I do my quilting . . . I sometimes quilt all day long . . . But it gets you in between your shoulders, and I have arthritis."
Mrs. Stanley quilted using an oblong hoop instead of a traditional frame. She liked the hoop because it was portable and because she could turn and twist it, making it easier to do fancy quilting designs such as feather wreaths. She marked her quilting lines lightly in pencil covering them with the quilting stitches.
After interviewing Mrs. Stanley, the fieldworkers returned to her house the following day and photographed her quilts outdoors. During that visit, Gerri Johnson continued to record Mrs. Stanley's comments about the quilts she had made, inherited, or purchased at auction. The occasion offered Mrs. Stanley an unusual opportunity to see her quilts from a distance, and the interview revealed her pride and delight in the experience. "I have an idea. I think I'll stretch a line down here in my yard and put up a for-sale sign, and price these out of reason, and have people coming by to see them. I didn't know they were so pretty!"
"I make quilts for the beauty, and not for the service," Mrs. Stanley said. "I just appreciate beautiful quilts, I do, really. When you appreciate something, you want to possess some of it . . . Possession is a whole lot, isn't it, in life? Possessing things? I believe it is with me."