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Collection Quilts and Quiltmaking in America, 1978 to 1996

Ila Patton

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.

Portrait of Ila Patton

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.

Strip quilt, detail

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.

Cathedral Window quilt, detail

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

Photographs and Sound Recordings Featuring Ila Patton