A! Magazine for the Arts

Exquisite details from one of Arlene Compton's quilts in the "Baltimore Album" style.

Exquisite details from one of Arlene Compton's quilts in the "Baltimore Album" style.


November 21, 2006

Arlene Compton of Honaker, Va.

Arlene lives just outside Honaker along the scenic Clinch River. She pieced her first quilt, "a basic Nine Diamonds," she recalls, at the age of 13 and quilted it the following year. That was in 1939. Today, having just celebrated her 80th birthday, Arlene's practiced hands create quilts of beauty and extraordinary traditional elegance. While many quilters now have their actual quilting done by someone using a long-arm sewing machine (which is another talent all on its own), Arlene is still piecing and quilting each stitch by hand.

All of her quilts are full-size to fit on her beds, not the smaller wall hanging that is also very popular. "My husband always told me to make big quilts that cover the bed - so that's what I do," she smiles as she spreads her quilts out on the bed for display.

Her favorite styles are the long-established Baltimore Album, Dresden Plate, and Amish-influenced quilts. She uses patterns for inspiration, but makes modifications to fit her design ideas.

Arlene has loved fabrics as long as she can remember. For 30 years she co-owned Drapery Dreamhouse, a custom drapery business with clients ranging from Bluefield, W. Va. to Morristown, Tenn. Not only did she make the draperies, but Arlene and business partner Mae Vance also delivered and installed them as well. While most installations were in homes, they also serviced many high-ceilinged churches, offices, and schools.

After retiring from her business at age 72, Arlene returned to quilting as a means of keeping busy in the winter months. An avid gardener who specializes in exotic daylilies and irises, she spends spring and summer months cultivating vivid color in her flower gardens. As winter approaches, she settles in with her quilting hoops and needles to bring those colors indoors as she plans her next quilt project. "Some are finished in one winter, but the more intricate quilts may take two winters to complete," she admits.

Arlene loves the artistry of appliqué, which requires selecting and piecing just the right tones and shades of fabric together to achieve the desired result. She also incorporates blocks of ornate hand-stitching to complement her beautiful appliquework.

Arlene is an inspiration. Not only for her exquisite quilting, but for the energy and enthusiasm she continues to bring to all aspects of her life. Whether creating a new hybrid flower for her garden, or searching for just the right colors for her next quilt, she does it with graceful style and a smile.

Phyllis Street of Honaker, Va.

Phyllis is well known in local quilting circles. She is a member of the Holston Quilters Guild, the Cave House Craft Shop in Abingdon, and the Appalachian Arts Center in Richlands.

She began what she describes as a "serious interest" in quilting in 1975, and has perfected her needle art to produce quilts that have been exhibited in national shows, including the prestigious American Quilters Society Show in Paducah, Ky. Her work has also been featured in regional venues. Her original design, "The Lady's Red Hat," a modified Baltimore Album quilt, is on permanent display at Southwest Virginia Community College in Richlands, Va.

"The Lady's Red Hat" quilt came about as a result of dealing with her late husband's serious illness in the mid-1980s. "I was not seeing the joyful thing that color can be for some time after that," explains Phyllis. She was inspired by reading the poem "Warning" by Jenny Joseph that begins, "When I am an old woman I shall wear purple with a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me...." Phyllis says, "When I began the project in 1995, I knew I wanted purple but I could not find the right shade, so I had to hand-dye the fabric." The quilt evolved as she began working on it, and over the next several months, numerous people gave her pieces of fabric, from silk to burlap, which Phyllis incorporated into her unique design. [Editor's Note: The quilt was completed in 1996 before the Red Hat Society was formed in 1998.]

In 2000, Phyllis boarded her first airplane to travel to England to participate in London's renowned Ideal Home Show as part of a Virginia Cooperative Extension initiative, the Purely Appalachia Craft Empowermentprogram, to promote traditional high-quality crafts made by rural artisans. She gave demonstrations throughout the show, sharing her years of quilting knowledge and artistic talent with an international audience, generating appreciation and admiration for Appalachian and American quilting.

To commemorate the establishment of The Crooked Road: Virginia's Heritage Music Trail, Phyllis was asked to create two quilted wall hangings. One was presented to Joe Wilson, director of the National Council of the Traditional Arts and a driving force behind The Crooked Road project, and the other to then-governor Mark Warner. Her artistic flair is evident in the careful choice of fabrics appliquéd together to illustrate The Crooked Road meandering through a beautiful mountain mosaic.

Phyllis also collaborated with members of the Holston Quilters Guild to create "Postcards from Bristol," the Bristol Sesquicentennial Quilt which is on display in the new Bristol Public Library. Phyllis's contribution was the quilt block depicting the mockingbird, Tennessee's state bird.

Phyllis continues to quilt with a passion that comes from loving what she does. Over the years, she has sold some of her treasured quilts, but admits it is difficult to let them go since typically each takes a year or more to complete. "I believe quilting is my God-given talent," she says, "and I'm happy others get enjoyment from it." There is no doubt that many people have received much enjoyment from Phyllis's quilts over the past 30 years.

The late Grace Elswick of Tazewell County, Va.

An exhibit of Grace's quilts will be on view through Dec. 31 at the Appalachian Arts Center in Richlands, Va. According to her daughter, Nannie Pearl Dunford, Grace would have laughed to hear her name mentioned in the same breath as "art." However, Grace took pride in a job well done and was a perfectionist who felt a sense of satisfaction in producing something useful, finely crafted, pleasing to the eye, and enduring.

Grace quilted during the winter months in the Cove area of Tazewell County where she, her husband and three children lived and worked as tenant farmers. During the summer months, when the children were home from school, Grace was too busy gardening, gathering herbs, berry picking and canning to spend time indoors doing handiwork. In the winter, not believing in idleness, Grace made quilts to be used as bed coverings or as gifts to members of her extended family.

Nannie recalls that her mother was always on the "look out" for fabric. When the family went to town on Saturdays to sell their eggs and butter, Grace would go into the "five-and-dime" store and the Federation General Store in downtown Tazewell to select fabrics that struck her fancy. Usually fabrics were chosen with garments in mind for Nan and her brothers. After the clothing was made, the leftover pieces were used to fashion a quilt. Many of Nannie's dresses ended up in family quilts.

Grace's husband Bill managed the Gillespie farm and received farm magazines in the mail such as Grit, Farm and Ranch and Progressive Farmer to keep abreast of current trends. Alongside the information about crop rotation and fertilizing methods were stories, recipes and images of quilts that could be mail ordered. If Grace saw a quilt she liked, Bill would make a complete pattern on brown paper bags, using a protractor and ruler. Grace liked all of her squares to measure 12 x 12 inches and so, from a tiny advertisement, Bill would draft the pattern to scale. Later, Grace and her mother-in-law would make a "sample," refining the pattern, making sure the edges met properly and the design went together seamlessly.

Nannie remembers that a quilt frame hung halfway over her mother and father's bed in a room that also served as a living room. Each quilt would be lowered down during the day to be worked on by Grace, who sat in a chair at the foot of the bed. In the late afternoon, the quilt was pulled up by rope and secured overhead as there was no longer daylight to see by and it was time for the kerosene lamps to be lit for the evening.

Quilt Pieces

While her mother worked outside the home, Carole Fuller of Abingdon, Va. was introduced to quilting as her grandmother and aunt raised her. She recalls, "My first 'job' as a child was to keep needles threaded and hanging on a curtain for my grandmother, since her eyesight was [failing]."

Anne Cowan is a member of the Blue Ridge Quilt Guild in Johnson City, Tenn. Until recently, she belonged to an informal group of quilters in Bristol who met weekly "to quilt, sew, and support each other through all of life's trials and tribulations." She explains, "It was in existence for 18 years but when one of our key members moved away, one became very ill, and one had hip surgery, we stopped meeting." Anne continues, "I am not carrying on a family tradition as no one in my family has made quilts. I always did needlework and decided to do something that had more lasting value and usefulness. I started with a wedding quilt for my brother and have made more than 30 full-sized quilts, hundreds of wall hangings and lots of other quilted items. I used to hand quilt exclusively but had so many things I wanted to finish that I started machine quilting. There is very little controversy (as there once was) over using machine quilting. Some of it is absolutely fantastic. My quilts are all made from commercially available patterns but have lots of my own 'twists' in them." Anne's quilts may be seen in the offices at Blue Ridge Medical Specialists and Cardiovascular Associates, both in Bristol.

The Wolf Hills Quilt Guild meets once a month in Abingdon. At these meetings are "Sew and Tell" sessions where members show off their latest quilts, and workshops are held on specific topics. They even have a summer Quilt Camp during which participants sew Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Meals are provided and many stay overnight. Quilters each bring their own projects but also help each other. In addition, everyone makes the same quilt block using their own fabric and colors. This year there were enough blocks to make three quilts. Campers include quilters from a five-state area.

Karen Northrup of Damascus, Va. has just learned to quilt. She says, "Quilting is a wonderful craft that transcends all generations. Some of my best friends are quilters whom I have met over the past year. Most are much older than me and have a wonderful ability to teach and share."

Kim Ashley of Abingdon has been sewing since she was eight years old. "I was inspired by the women in my family," she says. "My mother sewed and crocheted. My grandmother quilted, crocheted and also knitted. I tried everything and found sewing was for me. I made doll clothes and then things for myself for years until after I married. I wanted to make quilts for my family and found that I enjoyed it so much more. I like to piece the quilts, but to do the quilting on my machine is my favorite part. I make large bed quilts, but often make smaller, fun things such as wall hangings and landscapes."

Jeanette Adams of Chilhowie, Va. says, "My grandmothers and my father were quilters. Dad (the late T.R. Riddle) loved to quilt in his later years. He would go to the basement and make his quilts. Now when I stay with Mom for the weekend, I also go to the basement and make quilts. Sometimes, when it's quiet, it feels like Dad is there with me." Jeanette created a holiday quilt with postcard images of ice skaters, horse drawn carriages, and people walking in the snow. The quilt won second place at the 2006 Chilhowie Apple Festival.

Eva Sims, owner of The Quilt Shop in Bristol, just celebrated the 20th anniversary of her store in August 2006. She started the Holston Quilt Guild in her shop in 1988 with a small group of customers interested in learning more about quilting.

Tracey Counts of Abingdon has always enjoyed crafts and completed numerous projects in the art of cross-stitch needlework. She recalls, "The first quilt I received gave me the inspiration to learn this art, and my mother-in-law taught me many of the traditional patterns." Her favorite pattern is "Cathedral Window." She has completed many different types of projects with this process and has taught classes during the Virginia Highlands Festival. She says, "It is a pattern that is well liked, but is thought difficult to do. Students learn that there are a lot of stages to this process, but the quilt is completed when you are done - you do not have to 'quilt' (sandwich three layers together: top, batting, backing) because it is all completed in one process. I carry my projects of this pattern everywhere I go. It is all handwork so I can do it at car shows, a few stitches at work, or on the couch at home. The pattern can be done in any cotton fabric and even made for the holidays."

Polly Taylor is a retired elementary teacher, former owner of the Tennessee Quilts shop, and the founder of QuiltFest, all in Jonesborough, Tenn. Quilting retreats are conducted at her log home on the Nolichucky River, and she teaches quilting classes from Johnson City, Tenn. to Asheville, N.C. Her home-based business, Polly's Feedsack Prints, grew out of an early love, interest, and research of feedsack prints. She is a collector of feedsacks and a teacher of traditional vintage quilt patterns.

A lifelong interest in fabric, design and color has led Sylvia Richardson of Marion, Va. into many ventures in arts and crafts. She has worked as a painter in oils and acrylics, but her focus on quilting has fulfilled, consumed and brought all interest into an inexhaustible outlet which satisfies her creative drift. She began her professional career in the classroom and has continued to teach quilting for more than a decade. Richardson emphasizes the use of fabric combinations, color and pupil involvement as she shares her skills in embellishment, appliqueand creative design.


Quilting has always been a part of Appalachia. As basic to mountain life as the music brought here by the earliest settlers, quilts have represented warmth, love, and comfort - especially during harsh times in American history. They are an integral part of family tradition, spanning multiple generations as enduring and cherished heirlooms.

Settlers brought quilts to the New World from Europe, along with limited supplies of fabric that could be carried on small, crowded ships. According to The Mountain Artisans Quilting Book by Alfred A. Lewis, it took years for enough flax and wool to be produced for the spinning of new materials, so the tiniest scraps of fabric were saved to patch clothing worn threadbare by daily use. And when the clothing was beyond repair, those scraps were used to patch the tattered quilts, thus giving birth to the American style of patchwork quilting. Pieced from small remnants of everyday life, each quilt became a family chronicle.

As fabrics became more abundant in the new America, the desire to infuse function with color and beauty produced quilts of marvelous design and wonderful needlework. There are as many patterns and styles as can be imagined. While guilds have been instrumental in preserving legacy quilt patterns, quilters also combine traditional techniques with new media to produce contemporary art quilts, portrait quilts, literary quilts, and watercolor quilts. The list is endless as to how this traditional craft has been transformed into exquisite and expressive art forms, and into a multi-billion-dollar international phenomenon.