QUILTER PROFILE: The Reynoldstown Quilters
As much as all of us love our computer quilting, sometimes we need to get away from our cyber-everything and treat ourselves to a bracing dose of what has sometimes been referred to as "real life."
It was such a need that led me last month to venture away from my computer and into one of Atlanta's poorer Black neighborhoods just east of the city, where the Reynoldstown Quilters make their home.
They are not a large group, with only five members. They do not teach classes, except occasionally to school children, and they do not own large publishing empires or mail order catalogue companies. They don't even particularly like to design quilts. They own no computers, get no e-mail, and have only the vaguest notion of what the internet might be. What they do like to do is sit around a big frame, talk, and take stitches. Lest we idealize them too much, there's also a TV in their quilting room, and Jerry Springer was blaring from it when I arrived at their meeting place, the Reynoldstown community center.
Mamie Hughley, Annie Heard, Mary E. Ingram, Pearl Walker and Annie Parks, meet with passing regularity at the community center three days a week on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Though Pearl let it be known that she is there every day, working at the frame, and Annie Parks is in the hospital recovering from a recent stroke. They get there about 10, and leave by early afternoon, and their time is split between quilting and helping with the other activities of the community center, including distributing donated bread to senior citizens in the local neighborhood. They have been quilting together for five or six years, and range in age from seventy years old to their mid-eighties.
Annie Heard, Mary, and Pearl were there the day I visited, as Mamie's husband was in the hospital. All three of these women had been born and raised in various parts of rural Georgia. Pearl had never left the state, but Annie had spent more than 30 years in Chicago, only to return to Georgia upon the death of her husband.
Asked about how they got started quilting, Annie spoke up first: "Oh, I've been quilting ever since I wasn't tall enough to sit down to quilt. I had to stand up to quilt," she said. "My mother'd quilt, and she'd let me quilt. Sometimes, you know, it'd be just child work, but she would let us work and encourage us, and tell us 'that's fine!'" Annie's grandmother had also quilted, and Pearl also got started as a child at her mother's frame.
Annie said that after she left home and the rural areas she quit quilting. It wasn't until she married that she first saw a blanket, and without the necessity to make bedcovers it didn't occur to her to quilt for recreational purposes until she returned to Georgia many years later.
Quilting materials were, as tradition everywhere informs the craft, old clothing and feedsacks. "Pants," said Pearl. "Old pants. When you couldn't wear them any more she'd tear them apart and make quilts of them." Annie pointed out that almost all fabric in those days was cotton, and Mary looked up from her stitching and said her mother used to make a lot of quilts out of wool. I asked what they stuffed the quilts with and they said cotton, from the fields. "It was ginned cotton," Annie said. "You know, when they didn't have enough left over to make another bale. That was what we used to fill the quilts. And sometimes, you know not all the bolls open at the same time, so we would go out and get the ones that opened late, and whip 'em. Whipped the seeds out of them."
Talk of the cotton fields and the necessity to make their own bed coverings caused the women's minds to contemplate the other hardships of their childhood. Pearl said, "I never had a coat as a child. Never did." And she recalled what else she might sometimes find in the fields: "A potato. And that potato wasn't for playin'. It was for eatin'."
The women spoke of another familiar tradition, which was as much a part of the culture in rural Georgia as elsewhere in America, the quilting bee. "They used to have quilting bees," Annie said. "They'd make so many tops, and they'd get the linings ready. When they had enough the women would come to my mother's house and they would quilt for a day, maybe two days. Then they would move on to the next person's house, and that way all of them got their quilts made. This was in the winter months, you know, when you couldn't work on the farm."
The room in which the Reynoldstown Quilters work in the community center contains two large home-made frames, constructed from two-by-fours and large dowels. I asked if their mothers used frames and they said yes, they had large frames. "But they was hanging," Pearl said, "from the ceiling." Annie elaborated, "they had things made into the ceiling with strings, and they tied a string here, and there, and over there, [indicating the corners of the frame] and then they rolled it up, rolled it up to the ceiling." I had seen a similar frame with a quilt in it tied up near the ceiling of an old Alabama farmhouse. "Then they would roll 'em down when they were ready to work on them; sometimes they would have two or three rolled up that way."
I asked the women how they decided on the design of their tops. There were several quilts hanging around the room on the walls, all of basically simple designs and colors. "We just do our own things," Annie said. "We just make up our own design, whatever design we want," Mary added. I asked who had made the top they were quilting, which was multi-colored square patches. "Nobody," Annie said. And I looked more closely at it and discovered it was what is colloquially known as "cheater cloth." Annie took me over to a quilt of her own design hanging on the wall, a series of long strips sewn together vertically in yellows, oranges, and greens. The strips were not uniform in size or squarely cut, and I asked her how she cut them. "With scissors," she said. Neither she nor the other two quilters had ever used a rotary cutter. "We just do it the old-fashioned way," Annie said.
The women openly professed to having little interest in design, but were more absorbed by the "stitchin' part." And the "stitchin' part" is something they are not in any hurry to complete. When I asked how long it takes them to quilt a top, they said they didn't keep track. They quilted as long as they felt like it, then quit, and a quilt would sit in the frame for several weeks as each worked on a corner of it. Neither are they overly concerned about their quilting stitches. Characteristically sturdy and somewhat large stitches on a top drawn very tight, they could best be described as utility quilting. But they are consistent with the overall rustic, untutored quality of the quilts.
The Reynoldstown Quilters are in demand in the community. They are regularly invited to local Atlanta city schools to teach third graders about quilting and its part in their culture. They have won an award from the Apple Corps, and have had work -- both quilting and other crafts -- in a folk art exhibit which made at stop at the Smithsonian Institution, among other venues. They recently gave a demonstration at "Quilt Family Day" in conjunction with Atlanta's High Museum of Art's exhibition of Afro-American improvisational quilts (see review elsewhere in this issue.)
Before I left them, I asked if they would permit me to take a few stitches on their quilt. They gave me a large needle and a spool of green thread, and asked if I used a thimble. I said yes, but that I liked a leather one I have, and they all expressed great interest in the idea of a leather thimble. They admired my relatively small, straight stitches as I did two or three rows in one of the squares, until I broke my needle. "Too many stitches on it," Pearl said, and I agreed. "That's when it's time to quit, when you break your needle," she said. Besides, she and Annie and Mary were anxious to go out and help get the bread together.
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