North Carolina Quilts – How We Went from Waterpower to the Grandaddy of All Quilt Bees to the New Home of Keepsake Quilting

I was lucky enough to be born in North Carolina.

North Carolina born, raised, and educated.  I am as much of a product of our red clay fields as the cotton and tobacco grown here.  While I love to travel and see new places, there is a part of my heart which still sings when it’s time to go home.  I mean, what’s not to love about a state bookended by the Smokey Mountains and the Crystal Coast?

In past blogs I’ve discussed some regional quilts and their specifics.  This week I want to introduce you to North Carolina quilts and what makes them different from others.  Usually when I mention North Carolina quilts to anyone, a few stereotypical blocks come to mind:  Carolina Lily (which was first noted in 1890 and it was called the Cleveland Lily, probably after Grover Cleveland and had nothing to do with my state), Coastal Lily, and the Carolina Star (which is the official quilt block of North Carolina and was originally only made from blue and white fabrics). 

North Carolina Star

Other blocks containing cardinals, lighthouses, and magnolias are also frequently mentioned when discussing North Carolina quilts. 

A Brief History Lesson

But these just scratch the surface of a deep and abiding quilt history.  However, to understand our quilts, you must first understand our state.  A brief history, first.  We are one of the 13 original colonies, composed of a land grant from King Charles I.  For some of you, being part of the 13 colonies may denote a fired-up, signing-The Declaration of Independence-fighting those British Redcoats group of folks….

And you’re wrong.

The Carolina Colony was large and at that time encompassed North and South Carolina, and part of Georgia and Florida.

If North Carolina is nothing else, we are a deliberate group of citizens who take our time to think things through.  We were the eleventh colony to declare our independence (Halifax Resolves), but the Battle of Alamance is considered to be the first Revolutionary War skirmish.  We were one of the very last Southern states to secede from the Union – but being last threw us into a precarious predicament and more on that later, because yes, it concerns quilts and quilters.

Besides having an overall population of deliberate thinkers, we’re kind of an odd state politically.  It’s nothing new for us to have a governor of one political party and a lieutenant governor of another political persuasion.  College basketball playoffs are jokingly referred to as “Holy Season” and I’ve seen near fist fights break out over barbeque and I’m talking about sliced or chopped pork barbeque, slow cooked over a wood fire, and then treated with your preferred sauce – not hamburgers, hot dogs, and the like cooked on a grill.  That’s a cookout, not barbeque.  Seriously. 

North Carolina rivers, streams, lakes, and inlets

Water, Water Everywhere

All of those wonderful peculiarities aside, to understand our quilts, there are a few characteristics which must be kept in mind.  First, we have the Atlantic Ocean to the east, which enables our state to have world-class ports.  And that means we have served as an import/export destination for hundreds of years (and pirates…and hurricanes).  We could import fine fabric while we were a colony and export our textiles later.  To the west lie the Smokey Mountains with their rich Scotch-Irish heritage both in song, dance, language, and home textiles.  And in the middle is the Piedmont, where I live.  We have the Research Triangle and wonderful quilt shops.  The item which ties these three areas together are our waterways – which means not only transportation, but back years ago, it gave us the ability to get goods to and from one destination to another.  Items such as thread, needles, and fabric.  What’s equally important is the waterpower these rivers, streams, and creeks provided for mills.  Early on, this meant nearly every settlement of some size had easy access to a grain mill where wheat, corn, and oats could be ground for animal feed or flour, cereal, and cornmeal.  Later, after the Civil War ravaged the South, the waterways were used to power textile mills, which allowed North Carolina to recover from the war at a faster pace than some other Southern states.

Early North Carolina quilts were no different from most other quilts constructed in other states…but I love the pinwheels this North Carolina quilter added to hers.

Fine Thread and Fine Fabric

We had something to sell which everyone needed:  thread and fabric.  And this is really where North Carolina’s quilting cultures differs from other states.  Our quilts were first documented at the turn of the 19th century through diaries, wills, and newspaper articles.  At this time, our quilts were no different than any other state’s.  They were decorative with fine applique or trapunto, white work, or Broderie Perse.  Plus, quilting in itself was a highly social event.  There are numerous accounts of quilting bees and socials.  However, all of this begin to change about 1850.

Early water powered textile mill in North Carolina

If you’ve read this blog: you know this is about the time man-made, commercial dyes became readily available.  No longer did cloth manufacturers have to undergo the laborious process to get a red, blue, or green piece of fabric.  Man-made dyes hit the market with a bang, and along with them came the need for fine cloth and thread.  North Carolina, with its plethora of textile mills, filled this need.  As a matter of fact, the mills produced such fine thread, that when it was used on the home weaving loom, quite often no difference could be found between the homespun and the mill manufactured cloth.  After the Civil War was over, men with the last names of Cone and Holt rebuilt the textile mills and North Carolina became a leader of textile production for years.  All of these factors came into play with North Carolina quilters and their quilts.  We had access to plenty of fabric, in a variety of colors and prints, and fine thread to sew them with.  Since these were overwhelmingly locally produced, the price was reasonable and most quilters could afford them. As a result, what you don’t see in North Carolina quilts is a re-use of old clothing or other household textiles in the quilts.  There really wasn’t a reason to “up cycle” until the Great Depression. 

North Carolina Double Wedding Ring Quilt made from feedsacks

What You Won’t Find In Our Quilts

Now that you have a bit of history about how the production of textiles shaped our economy and our quilting world, let’s take a deep dive into what makes North Carolina quilts unique.  To begin with, let’s examine what you won’t see in most of our quilts. 

  •  English paper piecing.  I’m not saying there aren’t any North Carolina quilts with English paper piecing, but overall, North Carolina quilters historically haven’t been fans of this technique.  And I’m no different than my North Carolina ancestors.  I can execute this skill, but I would rather not.
  • Pictorial quilts.  This means quilts such as this:
Pictorial Quilt

For whatever reason, this type of quilt never caught on with my state’s quilters as a whole.

  •  Political quilts.  If you remember this blog: you know some quilts got really political.  North Carolina quilters did produce some rose quilts, but these were not to make a political statements.  In general, our quilters were fairly apolitical and made the rose quilts for their beauty, not for the candidate the blocks endorsed.   

What Our Quilts Are Known For

Now for what did become apparent with North Carolina quilts.

Crazy Quilt constructed in Rockingham County
One of the last original buildings from the time period when Burlington, NC was known as The Company Shops. This building now serves as the Amtrak terminal.
  •  Crazy Quilts.  We produced a lot of crazy quilts.  Pieces of wool, satin, silk, and other assorted fabrics were sewn together and embellished with embroidery.  The abundance of these quilts is probably due to the railroads crisscrossing our state.  The railroads were in direct competition with waterway transportation, not only in my state, but up and down the east coast and heading further west.  This was especially true in my home county of Alamance, where the town of Burlington was once called Company Shops – the place where trains which ran North to South were repaired, turned around, and attended to.  The influx of trains and the goods on them meant women had the opportunity to acquire all kinds of fabric – not just quilting cottons.  As a result, North Carolina quilters were well-equipped when the Crazy Quilt fad hit the quilting world. 
  •  Sashing and Borders.  Around 1875, North Carolina quilts almost did a complete 180.  Fine handwork and applique virtually disappeared as the quilts began to show nearly all pieced work with sashing and borders.  If you notice the date – 1875 – you may realize this is a full decade after the Civil War ended.  The Reconstruction Era ran roughly from 1863 through 1877, and even longer in some places where General Sherman completely devastated large swaths of states.  But before the “official end” of Reconstruction, here we have quilters who were able to not only obtain new fabric, but also could afford to purchase “extra” fabric for sashing and borders.  This is a direct testament to North Carolina’s commitment to the textile industry.  Our workers could not only supply the material needed for these quilt “extravagances,” but the mills were paying a good enough wage their employees and families could afford to purchase it.  At this point, it’s important to also remember two concepts.  First, even though the quilts were largely pieced, the workmanship was still fine.  The quilts which survived this period show good workmanship, design, and color balance.  Second, there is evidence that quilt patterns were exchanged, loaned, or taken from publications, as quilt historians have noted duplicate quilts during this period.
Circa 1875 NC Quilt
Another North Carolina Quilt, circa 1875

Textiles Are the Link to Our Quilts and Our History

There is literally no way to separate the production of North Carolina textiles from North Carolina quilts.  The two are inextricably linked, with Massachusetts perhaps being the only state which out produced us at any given time.  I mentioned before that North Carolina was one of the last states to secede from the United States during the Civil War.  We did not join the Confederacy until May 20, 1861.  And unlike many of the other southern states, our economy wasn’t driven as much by slave labor, so this wasn’t the primary reason we entered the war.  A quick study of North Carolina military regiments at the beginning of the war shows a pretty evenly divided army.  We had as many men fighting for the Union as we did the Confederacy.  And while the state desperately tried to remain neutral overall, it wasn’t until Union forces told our soldiers to fire on South Carolina (our sister state), that things immediately went from bad to worse.

You see, the Union wanted our men, but even more than them, they wanted our textiles.  The same with the Confederate Army.  Both had regiments of soldiers they needed to clothe and keep warm.  North Carolina had the thread, the looms, and the textile mills. We could both clothe soldiers and make quilts and blankets.  The pressure was on from both sides to join their cause, but in the end, we agreed to secede.  It is worth noting the first Confederate casualty in the Civil War came from North Carolina – Henry Lawson Wyatt. 

Henry Lawson Wyatt

Originally born in Virginia, Wyatt’s family moved when he was young and settled in Pitt County.  We, along with Virginia, lost the most men.  Each state lost 31,000 soldiers.  Per population, North Carolina also supplied the most men – 129,000.  The exact number of uniforms, bedrolls, quilts, etc., is more difficult to pin down.  Each solider was responsible for his own uniform and there are dozens of diary entries from women discussing how to make the uniforms, etc.  It is safe to say that since North Carolina supplied the most men, it’s reasonable to assume we also supplied the most uniforms and bedding.

How the Great Depression Affected North Carolina Quilts

I can’t write a blog on North Carolina quilts without mentioning the Great Depression.  As I talked about in previous blogs, this time in our national history spurred a quilt revival which has really not been duplicated.  Our bicentennial came close, but the Great Depression’s quilt resurgence was bigger.  However, there are few occurrences which began during this time which still affects North Carolina quilters today. 

The North Carolina Quilt Project (organized in 1985) notes our state’s quilters had some favorite blocks during this time. Dresden Plate, Little Dutch Girl (basically Sunbonnet Sue), Double Wedding Ring, Trip Around the World, and Grandmother’s Flower Garden quilts were made in abundance here – just like they were in almost every other state. 

North Carolina Twin Dresden Plate Quilts. Look at those borders…..

So, the quilts constructed in North Carolina during this time were no different than those made in other states.  What is different are the events which developed from all this quilting.

Uncle Eli’s Quilting Party

The first noteworthy event which stemmed from the Great Depression Quilt Revival is Uncle Eli’s Quilting Party.  In North Carolina, this is the granddaddy of all quilt bees.  Held at the Eli Whitney Recreation Center, it started in 1931 and is still going strong today.  If you decide you’d like to join the party, it’s usually the first Thursday in April.  You’ll need to take North Carolina Highway 87 to the point where it intersects Greensboro-Chapel Hill Road.  That’s where you’ll find the unincorporated community of Eli Whitney (if you reach Mandale or Snow Camp, you’ve gone too far).  This quilting party is part quilt show, part quilt bee.  Bring your quilts and plenty of folks will want to look at them and you’ll have plenty of quilts to look at, too.  Bring something to work on, and don’t forget a covered dish – lunch is potluck.

The second noteworthy events are the number of quilting groups which formed in the Great Depression.  The backdrop of these groups was the need for churches to generate some kind of income to keep their doors open, assist missionaries, and help the needy of the community.  The quilters in the churches put their heads and needles together and began to meet.  They made signature quilts and sold spaces for signatures for a few cents each.  They made raffle quilts and sold tickets for a chance to win those.  These groups met in church basements and Sunday School rooms for years.  As more women entered the workforce, the numbers dwindled, but many of these bees are still going strong (there are five not very far from my home).  This means if some these groups started around the same time as Uncle Eli’s Quilting Party, a few of these bees are at least 90 years old.

The natural sequence from bees is the formation of quilt guilds.  North Carolina currently has 101 guilds.  Presently, these are all local guilds, with some counties having several (Guilford County has three – Piedmont Quilt Guild, Gate City Quilt Guild, and High Point Quilt Guild.  Even my tiny home county of Alamance has two quilt guilds).

There also is an intangible admiration which came from the 1930’s quilt revival – an appreciation of the art and the artists.  Part of this stems from the historical importance of the textile industry.  However, some of this also is a result from the recognized part quilts have played in North Carolina history.  In most local historical museums, there will be quilts. The North Carolina Museum of Natural History houses a large collection of textiles, including quilts.  There is a quilt exhibit in Western North Carolina Heritage Center.  And if you’re visiting Western North Carolina, be sure to check out our quilt trail. 

The North Carolina counties which have quilt trails are highlighted in yellow.

The last thought I want to leave you concerns this:

Quilt constructed from Alamance Plaids

Some of you may have seen this type of fabric in quilts dating from the Civil War Period.  Usually, it’s found on the back of North Carolina quilts, but over the span of between 1853 to 1865-ish, it can also be found on the front of quilts.  This fabric is known as Alamance Plaids, and it hails from my home county of Alamance (I was born in Burlington and grew up in Graham).  Edwin Holt and his son, Thomas, developed this plaid material at the Holt’s Alamance Factory.  This was the first plaid cloth woven in the south.  When a blockade of North Carolina ports took place in the Civil War, this was the fabric that clothed our citizens – from their underwear to their Sunday best.  As a matter of fact, the 1863 graduating class of the Greensboro Female College (now Greensboro College) made their commencement dresses from Alamance Plaids. 

Greensboro Female College, NC

There was enough of this fabric woven to allow us to not only make sure our soldiers had adequate clothing, but we also supplied other states with the material, so their solders were taken care of, too.

My small collection of Alamance Plaids

In summary, it’s easy to say North Carolina quilts are similar to quilts found in other regions.  The characteristic which makes them exceptional is their link to our state’s textile industry.  We had access to fabric and thread and weaving technology other states did not (with Massachusetts probably being the exception).  This allowed our quilters to have the fabric to create wonderful quilts even during hard times and to have the resources to pass the art down to the next generation… and the next … and the next.  I can mention I quilt to nearly anyone in my state and the responses are immediate…

My mom quilted…

My grandmother quilted…

I have an aunt who quilts…

There’s a quilt shop in my town.  I’ve always wanted to learn…

I quilt, too….

Warms my heart and thrills my soul.

Come to North Carolina.  We’ll show you some quilts…we’ll visit Pineapple Fabric and Keepsake Quilting…we’ll go to a guild meeting.  And in between we may catch a college basketball game and eat some good barbeque.

Until Next Week, Make Your Quilt Yours!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

14 replies on “North Carolina Quilts – How We Went from Waterpower to the Grandaddy of All Quilt Bees to the New Home of Keepsake Quilting”

Sherri, This was so interesting and informative about North Carolina. Several of my ancestors lived in and around Advance, NC. Some of my GGGrandparents are buried in a Moravian cemetery that is just a few miles away from Advance. The log cabin that my GGGrandfather built is still standing and I have pictures of it. I visited NC a few years ago and just loved it. Lucky you for living in such a wonderful place with such a rich history.

Wonderful article! So Interesting ! I learned to patchwork and quilt at Alamance Technical School when I was 15. Many years later I met my teacher at Uncle Eli’s Quilt Party. Love this craft and the camaraderie it promotes .

It’s been awhile since I had a chance to get by Uncle Eli’s. I would love to again! My mom is a retired stain glass teacher at ACC. It’s such a small world! Thank you for reading!

Hi Sherri! My friend Neva Hart, a quilt historian, and I are conducting a quilt research project on a pattern often known as “Alamance Rose”. This design is exclusive to western Alamance County and eastern Guilford County. You can see an example in the NC Quilt book. Known examples were made between 1875 to 1920. We are searching for the connection between the ladies who made these quilts. Where did the pattern originate? How did they share the pattern? Was there a church connection even though they attended different churches? Was there an agricultural fair connection since most of the ladies were farm wives? We have contacted local historical museums with these questions. Now we are turning to the public. Do you recall your mother or grandmother making this quilt? Do you have an original pattern? We would appreciate any information. Thank you!

I’ll be honest. As much as I have researched North Carolina quilts, plus the fact I was raised in Graham, NC — smack dab in the middle of Alamance County — I’ve never heard of this quilt block. My mother isn’t avid quilter, but my great-grandmother was. Let me look through what I have on her and see if I can find anything. I can put out an all-points-block-bulletin with the Guildford County Quilt guilds and see what (if anything) I can come up with. Now I can’t wait to get off work and look up this block! I’ll be in touch.

I should have also noted I live in Guilford County and I am a long time member of the Piedmont Quilters’ Guild. I recently gave a program for the Burlington Carousel Quilters requesting information plus sent an inquiry to the Alamance Piecemakers Guild. I’ve been in touch with Uncle Eli’s also. I can’t wait until April to bring my quilt there and speak to some of the quilt makers.

Have you tried the North Carolina History Museum in Raleigh? When Forsyth Piecers and Quilters held the NCQP in the eighties, the NC Museum of History worked in close conjunction with the guild. Not only did the museum become the repository of the quilt information, but those registering their quilts (which were all constructed prior to 1976), also received photos and quilt stories from their owners. All this is probably on line by now. However, it may also be worth a phone call. North Carolina had over 10,000 quilts registered during this project.

I found it—at least I think so. If it’s the same quilt which is on pg 95 of the North Carolina Quilts, it has an entire chapter devoted to it in Southern Quilts: Celebrating Traditions, History, and Design. This particular chapter begins on page 26. It may answer a great deal of your questions or at least point you in the right directions.

Thanks so much for writing this article! It was as delightful as it was informative.
While I’m not a quilter, my mother and grandmother have always been involved in fiber crafts.
I take after my grandfather, a woodworker. In fact, I’m planning to make some quilt block coasters, and I’m so glad to have stumbled upon your article.
I’ll have to whip up some NC specials 😀

Please contact me so we can talk about Alamance Plaids and other plaids made in NC. I have been researching them since 1992, along with Suzanne McDowell. Thanks. Lynn Gorges

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