Tennessee Quilting Preserves Family Heritage
Quilting is an art that can be traced back to ancient Egypt and China, revealing clues to the past. We may think of quilting as a pastime of our grandmothers to while away their time, or the frugal efforts of early pioneer women to keep the family warm in winter by elaborately sewing scraps of material together. In fact, the true origins of quilting are far more interesting!
A needlework technique that involved stitching two pieces of fabric together with an inner layer of padding or batting, quilting was a method of making carpets and garments before the first century C.E. Quilted articles were traded on the Silk Road between China and Europe, worn by Crusaders under their armor, and adorned bedchambers during the Renaissance. In eighteenth-century England quilted petticoats and waistcoats became fashionable, the technique was popular for bedding, and quilts were introduced to the American colonies by English and Dutch settlers.
Have heirloom quilts been passed down in your family? Early American quilts were mainly functional, but when fabrics were more affordable in America, artistic types of quilting became more widespread. Many are very elaborate and have taken years to make, using a variety of cloth remnants. During the 1970s and ’80s the granddaughters of our ancestors revived the interest in quilt making, learning these skills with a renewed passion to continue this art and express national pride and achievement. Creative designs are crafted into colorful patterns and family histories are sewn into quilts one patch at a time.
Tennessee has its own mecca for quilters. Tucked away in the heart of Goodlettsville’s Antique District is Quilter’s Attic, which draws quilters from hundreds of miles around. Started in the attic of a carriage house 25 years ago, Quilter’s Attic outgrew its space and moved to Main Street, where current owner Fran Sargent has shared her passion for the beauty and dramatic impact of quilts for the past 10 years.
“There are three main types of quilting today,” she explained as she showed me the collection of stunningly beautiful quilts hanging on the walls. “Simple piecing, which is quick and easy, paper piecing, and Civil War quilting.”
Sargent is a certified instructor in paper piecing, teaching the renowned techniques of Judy Niemeyer, whose inspiration is strongly influenced by Indonesian batiks. “I love working with new quilters, getting them started and passing on new tips,” said Sargent.
“Paper piecing began in England with silk fabrics. Fabrics are cut and sewn to paper templates, which are then removed before quilting. Piecing is what we call the actual cutting and sewing of the top layer of fabric. Quilting is the stitching together of three layers – the top, the inner cotton batting, and the back. When quilts were made out of necessity to be warm, they were pretty on top, with plain muslin backs. But now the backs are beautiful too.”
The interest in Civil War quilts has flourished as companies have created reproductions of old fabric after researching quilts in museums and private collections.
Fran Sargent and her staff teach classes for new techniques in quilting, or provide a fun environment for enthusiasts to come and sew or mix with other quilters.
Quilter’s Attic is also a sponsor of Sewn-N-Love, a national non-profit organization which makes, collects and donates quilts to cancer patients. Many of their quilters contribute quilts for distribution to chemotherapy treatment centers, hospitals, cancer support groups and individuals.
“Every quilt shop is different and reflects the personal taste of the owner,” said Fran. “When traveling many people are on the lookout for ideas, new fabrics and techniques.”
To my surprise, none of the beautiful quilts on display at Quilter’s Attic were for sale. “These are all a labor of love by many of our staff,” said Sargent. “Most people invest too much of themselves to ever sell them. So we teach people how to make their own. We also have the machines to quilt the fabric together and sew finished edges.
There is obviously more to quilting than meets the eye! Give yourself a treat and pay a visit to Quilter’s Attic on the north side of Nashville. You may find yourself signing up for a class or buying a starter kit to create your own family heirloom!