QuiltSpeak, a new exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, explores what quilts can say of their makers. For the Cedar Grove Quilters, the exhibit has also given some local women a platform to speak — as makers of quilts — on their art.
“This exhibit is helping people to understand the culture,” Joanne Mathis, the unofficial coordinator of the Cedar Grove Quilters who has been quilting for nearly 20 years, said. “People take it for granted, and they gasp at the amounts that quilts are sold for. They don’t know how much work these take. It’s not what you see at Belk, that’s not a quilt. This is a beautiful piece of history passed from one generation to another.”
Begun in the 1980’s, the Cedar Grove Quilters are a group of around 15 women who meet year-round at Eno Presbyterian Church to plan and stitch together quilts. Their quilting season — a period stretching from January through March when the women meet thrice weekly for all day quilting sessions on large frames — is when they help each other hand-quilt together individual member’s quilt tops, batting and backing. During the season they also complete an annual church raffle quilt, raffled off to pay for the utilities at the fellowship hall that houses their meetings.
Each season the women complete around 16-18 quilts in total.
The group is currently between seasons, meaning that Mathis and the other quilters meet once a month for a potluck and to plan next year’s raffle quilt.
In between meetings, the women are also piecing together the tops of their own personal masterpieces, and, this summer, the women have another off-season task — coordinating their trip to the history museum to participate in a QuiltSpeak quilt-in on Saturday.
The quilt-in is free to the public. During the event, North Carolina quilters will stake out at the museum all day and work in a public environment.
The Cedar Grove Quilters are taking a quilt that is smaller than usual on a frame and plan — which they will work on with an audience of museum-goers — as well as some quilt blocks that will be open for attendees to practice stitching on and a sampler of the quilters’ past work.
Diana Bell-Kite — the curator of QuiltSpeak and the textile curator for the museum — said she hopes the public will come out to the quilt-in on Saturday to engage in an exhibit that “uncovers voices.”
“The exhibit is about quilts, but, at its heart, its an exhibit about women,” Bell-Kite said. “Women are not as represented in historical records. Many quilts were made by women without means to leave a lasting record in a different way. We can discover voices from North Carolina’s past that we don’t always hear through quilts.”
The Cedar Grove Quilters group also collaborated with the museum in helping to identify one of the quilts in the exhibit.
QuiltSpeak showcases 40 quilts from the museum’s permanent collection. One of the works — a friendship quilt where the makers sewed their signatures into the blocks — dates from the late 1800’s.
Bell-Kite used census records and other data to trace the origins of the quilt to Orange, Person and Caswell Counties, and the Cedar Grove Quilters were able to help her uncover the identities and lineage of certain signers of the quilt.
“I brought the quilt to Cedar Grove and the women helped me identify some of the names — many of them were related to makers of the quilt,” she said.
Mathis, a Cedar Grove native, began quilting to make use of some quilt tops that her grandmother had left behind. She learned from the Cedar Grove Quilters — many of the members women who she’d grown up around — how to hide her thread knots, make smaller stitches and achieve more intricate patterns.
“Quilting is important for me personally because I really enjoy doing it, and I think that joy comes out in the quilts I make,” Mathis said. “It’s also important because I want my family to see the quilts in the future and think ‘what was she trying to say with this one?’”
The group works to preserve the tradition of quilting for future generations, for Orange County and for the state of North Carolina, but they also work to keep moving in their art, always looking for new patterns and methods.
Mathis hand stitches her quilt tops, while others use machines. Some of the group’s members use traditional patterns, but might choose a variation of colors, while others might seek out less-traditional patterns or additions. One member of the group is skilled with raw-edge appliqué — stitching around a fabric shape without turning the edges under — and another is trying out Hawaiian quilting, a method where fabric is folded and snipped into intricate botanical shapes in the same way that paper snowflakes are fashioned.
“You echo the shape of the leaf with ripple stitching,” Kathi Lewis, another quilter in the group said of her project, currently a white and green section in a large embroidery hoop. “I thought it would be fun to try a unique pattern with this one.”
But more than mixing preservation and innovation in their work, the Cedar Grove Quilters focus on each other. QuiltSpeak’s emphasis on distinctly female communication and communion through quilting is something that is apparent at the Cedar Grove Quilters’ gatherings.The group is truly a sisterhood.
On Monday, the group met for their monthly meeting. The talk ranged from grandkids to member Nancy Oliver’s former local newspaper career, Saturday’s quilt-in to local artist and Cedar Grove Quilter Marcia McDade’s takeaways from a trip to Norway.
“You wouldn’t believe the things we talk about,” Mathis said. “We have all kinds of subject matter come up — people bring their sorrows and their joys.”