Summer Issue 2022

In Storied Company: Refashioning Heritage Quilts for the Present

By Macy Lethco

Just under 300 miles from the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, we rounded the curves of another Kentucky town with a reputation for the arts. Berea’s wooded roads gave way to Richmond’s historic battlefields and barns adorned with painted quilt squares. Mrs. Flowers had invited Laura Allen, Shelley Portugal, and myself to hear the story of her quilt collection. A PhD candidate, a photographer, and a writer, the three of us attended Western Kentucky University together, where Mrs. Flowers herself graduated some decades prior.

Turning into a condominium complex with a golf course as its backyard, we received no less than four waves from the neighbors as we found our way to Mrs. Flowers’ home. We walked up the steps to her condo and commented on the bright blooms and greenery lining the way. Mrs. Flowers greeted us heartily at the door— Sarah, we should call her. Mrs. Flowers had been her mother-in-law, the woman who had crafted many of the quilts that began piling up on the sofa in the formal living room, and then the second sofa, and then an armchair. 

Sarah unpacked the carefully folded quilts from pillowcases and laid out each one, explaining its origins, from either her mother, her mother-in-law, or the handiwork of a local, famed seamstress and embroiderer: Ms. Conley from Monticello. Ms. Conley had been known to plop a white sheet or pillowcase onto her kitchen table and freehand ornate, symmetrical scrollwork that Sarah’s mother would then embroider. The fabric would pass under a sewing machine or hand needle as one piece, with the stitched design on top, rather than many pieces of different fabric scraps or squares that may make up a traditional quilt. One sham and another pillow top had been completed during Sarah’s mother’s lifetime, but one sheet still bore pencil strokes outlining a would-be stitched pattern. Sarah doesn’t trust the handiwork to anyone else now that Ms. Conley has passed. 

A sheet bearing Ms. Conley's pencil drawings that remains unembroidered
Photograph courtesy of Shelley Portugal

Sarah and her husband, Keith, found themselves needing to move from their home of many years. In the whirlwind of house-hunting, they were faced with the task of downsizing all of their possessions. In the closets, Sarah found the stacks of quilts that had been given to them by her mother and grandmother — along with Keith’s mother — nearly 62 years prior, when they got married. Every quilt was well loved and used, and after each of the Flowers’ grandchildren had received an allotment, Sarah still had stacks leftover. 

Although quilts are traditionally passed down to family members in the next generation, families may find themselves with too many to use or ones in need of serious repair. In Sarah’s case, after she passed on some quilts to each of her daughters a few dozen still remained. Sarah decided to pass six quilts along to Laura, for her to turn into coats and to “make a little money,” too.  

It just so happened that a WKU acquaintance of ours was living in the Flowers’ basement. She had followed Laura’s business of turning quilts into coats since the very beginning and even bought one of Laura’s first coats. Sarah noticed the coat and graciously offered to gift Laura some of the quilts she needed out of the house. It was Sarah’s hope for Laura to craft these quilts into something wearable.

If someone were to be the most qualified for the hand-selection and sewing of quilts into coats, it would be Laura Allen. Allen is a PhD candidate in the study of aging and ageism and has spent her young life learning from those who are older. A close relationship with her Nana — and the Allen family penchant for storytelling — combine Laura’s attention to detail and her respect for history. She has described her artistic process as “listening, and making choices, and adding my own voice to the quilter’s story.” Rather than erasing a story already sewn, she introduces the piece to a new audience in a way that makes sense in the present. 

Sarah and her husband, Keith, are record keepers of family history. As Sarah organized the quilts hung on a rack, Keith directed the three of us to a frame holding his great grandfather’s Civil War record. Later, Sarah compared the intricacy of designs sewn by her mother in a series of quilts. As she aged, her mother’s stitching grew wider and simpler as the tiny hand-stitching of her earlier work became inaccessible due to arthritis in her hands. The quilts also marked transitional periods throughout history. The heavy, quilted blankets used during Kentucky winters, when indoor central heating was rare, gave way to thinner, more decorative quilts that were draped over footboards. Sarah could also point out the quilts made from the family wardrobe. A particularly colorful one was made from her husband’s sisters’ dresses.

The Flowers are full of stories, but they had to learn them by living and paying attention. While Sarah’s mother, Leena Pritchard, was quilting, Sarah was busy raising her two daughters, both of whom have their PhDs, and working as a tour guide in Mammoth Cave on crawling excursions, where she faced her claustrophobia head-on. It wasn’t until after her mother died, when Sarah planned to set aside quilts for each of her daughters and grandchildren, that she realized how little she knew about each quilt. 

Sarah set to work researching the patterns in each of the quilts she inherited. She contacted older family members, like Keith’s sisters, and wrote down notes about which pieces of fabric they remembered from their dresses or their mother’s apron. A particularly mysterious quilt was in the coffin pattern. When Sarah retrieved the piece from the basement, I was surprised by its cheerful colors. The pattern was often used in mourning as a final resting place for the clothing of the deceased. Keith’s sisters hadn’t recognized any of the clothing, so it was either older than either of them or from an unknown part of the family.

For much of quilting’s history, archival documentation wasn’t a priority, at least outside of the family, where quilts or fabric would be passed down. Quilting, too, was often excluded from art museums and overlooked as a source of collective cultural heritage. However, the “back to land” movements of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s brought “the revival of quilting and the reversal of industrialization’s contempt for the work of human hands.”1 This shift birthed the technological innovation of contemporary quilting: mass-produced batting, stencil designs, widely available cotton from fabric stores, and computerized machine quilting2. “Quilts were not only hung on walls but…also worn as clothing.”

In the mid-1970s, as the United States was approaching its bicentennial, the country was searching for a thread of shared, common culture. As a result, quilts, and the women who made them, appeared to be an appropriate symbol. Familiar folk images began to accompany quiltmaking, most notably the industrious pioneer woman putting together scraps of cloth to keep her family warm. Robert Shaw, an expert in American folk arts and crafts, noted that quilts provided “something positive about their country and its heritage…at a time, when politically, there might not have been much to celebrate.”4

The decorative quilt features irises, which Sarah grew at her previous home. A former neighbor who was an artist painted the flowers hanging on the wall, and the painting was given to them as a moving present.
Photograph courtesy of Shelley Portugal

The collective nostalgia and inherent comfort of a quilt drew the public into its fold. States organized large scale quilt projects to document and archive local quilts. Kentucky was the first state to do this in 1981. Kentuckians traveled to the nearest designated site to have their quilt photographed and its details recorded. The project later included a museum exhibition and a book, Kentucky Quilts: 1800-1900. Private family heirlooms were, for the first time, brought into the public eye and seen across the country, where they could be viewed with both a communal and an anthropological eye. Subsequent archival projects gleaned over 200,000 quilts documented across the United States and 10,000 in North Carolina alone5.

At last, quilts entered into the world of museums and art galleries, regional documentation, and the creation of a common American heritage. While the industrious story may have been a mixture of reality and spun yarn, it still rang true. Many people could point to their own quilt caches at home or memories of their mother or grandmother quilting. Keith remembered his sisters sitting around the fire in their southern Kentucky home, stitching and quilting. His mother grew cotton, which they would use for fabric. Some of the quilt pieces Sarah showed us were stained with cotton seeds that hadn’t been sifted out.

Whatever wind blew through the collective conscience throughout the 1980s and ’90s seemed to come again in 2020. As the coronavirus pandemic caused us to shut our collective doors, and as political division drained our minds, we turned to crafts to keep busy. Regrowing green onions, cutting our own hair, knitting, and breadmaking— the daily tasks of our not so distant ancestors— were a balm to return to amidst uncertainty and isolation. It was then that Laura Allen began making quilt coats. While she had taken up crocheting a few years prior, the stars aligned with quilt coats, as Laura’s hobby grew into a thriving small business. 

Quilt coats have come with a bit of controversy, worn by Instagram influencers and replicated on the racks of designer brands such as Free People and WhoWhatWear. If a coat were discovered in an old cedar chest, refashioned from a quilt to get someone through a long ago winter, we’d likely praise the ingenuity. Now, the modern chain of production makes us wonder: were these quilts appropriately and ethically sourced? Was something historically valuable ruined in the process? Would the original quilter be upset that their work has been cut up?

It is not just any quilt that makes it to Laura’s cutting table. She sources them from estate sales, auctions, Facebook marketplace, and bargain bins at antique malls. She has a few regular spots where she looks for what the quilting community calls “cutter quilts.” These have become less-than-functional as quilted blankets and may have significant tearing or holes that can’t be easily repaired. 

Whenever she stumbles upon such a quilt, Laura takes them back to her sunsoaked craft room in northern Kentucky to “sit together” and “spend time with the original quilter.” She spreads them out on her tan carpet as her cat, Mr. Bingley, looks on dispassionately from the papasan chair on which he sleeps. Laura examines the quilter’s work and assesses what type of coat would best honor the quilt’s construction. After her experience with dozens of quilts and much research, Laura can estimate its age — a quilt is only as old as its newest piece of fabric — and its pattern. Oftentimes, the name for the same type of construction can vary by region and time period. The name for her business, Foxy Grandpa Quilts, comes from a quilt block pattern as well as a comic from the early 1900s about a wily grandfather who plays tricks on his grandsons.

After assessing the condition the quilt, Laura begins the lengthy washing process. The quilts must be washed by hand in the bathtub and soaked in water treated with a special kind of soap. The water often turns a yellow-brown from the years of wear or lack of care in an antique mall’s corner booth. Laura then drains the tub and repeats the soaking process until the water is colorless. Next, she gently presses out the excess water and carries the heavy blanket out onto her deck, letting it dry in the sun.

Laura typically uses a few sewing patterns that she has perfected: a chore coat, a robe coat, and a duster. If the coat is a customized commission, she will opt for buttons or snaps, a tall or flat collar, a shorter or longer hemline. The quilt itself might dictate what type of coat it can become. Thicker quilts lay differently on the body, and the pattern and condition of the fabric might allow for only a short coat in a small size, for example. Laura lays out the pattern pieces to use as much of the quilt as possible. She often centers the pattern of the quilt onto the back of the coat and lines up the front pockets to showcase the pattern symmetrically. Anything leftover could be made into another coat, a Christmas stocking, or a handkerchief — for people or for dogs. If the quilt was sent to Laura for a specific project, she will return the scraps to the original owner. A handful of her commissions have utilized family quilts— customers usually say they asked their grandma for permission. These coats are a special way to recraft an heirloom that might otherwise go unused in its original form.

Laura shows Sarah the coat made from a quilt she had given Laura
Photograph courtesy of Shelley Portugal

Laura has made 75 quilt coats, but only three for herself, including one from a quilt that had been given to her great-grandma. Laura made sure her mother didn’t mind. She is working on a coat collection featuring Sarah’s quilts, and the first was one she wanted to keep. The quilt, made by Mrs. Flowers or her mother, was a simple blue pattern with an overdyed feed sack as the back.

Softer than burlap, feed sacks were a common choice for the backing of quilts due to the strength of wear. These sacks may have contained dairy feed, sugar, or flour. Companies caught onto their use in quilting and started designing their feed sacks with prints to draw more customers, who would incorporate them into quilt tops. The back of Sarah’s quilt was a feed sack from a dairy feed company, Audrey’s in Louisville, that had likely been beige and then dyed a pale pink by Mrs. Flowers. 

Laura turned the fabric inside out to feature the original feed sack backing on the outside of the coat. The duster coat showcases the detailed hand stitching from the blanket’s underside, with the Audrey’s logo in the center. The brass snaps and streamlined cut modernize the quilt into a structured-but-soft jacket with a double gauze appearance to the fabric. With Sarah’s blessing, Laura was able to honor the handiwork of the previous quilter and the intentions of the previous owner: to create something both useful and beautiful, long lasting enough to become an heirloom. I am also lucky enough to own one of Laura’s handmade coats. Although the original owner and their story is unknown, it has become my own heirloom now. 

Bruce Mann, the Louisville quilt and art dealer who originally proposed the Kentucky Quilt Project said, “Quilts deteriorate, are lost through negligence or catastrophe…depriving us of the privilege of their company.”6 In passing on her quilts, Sarah has allowed us to commune with her own history and experience the quilts that might have otherwise been lost. With her fine craftsmanship, Laura has been able to reintroduce those quilts back into our regular company.

Sarah Flowers, left, with Laura Allen, right
Photograph courtesy of Shelley Portugal

1 Duke, Dennis and Deborah Harding. 1987. America’s Glorious Quilts. New York: Crown Publishers.
2 Duke, Dennis and Deborah Harding. 1987. America’s Glorious Quilts. New York: Crown Publishers.
3 Duke, Dennis and Deborah Harding. 1987. America’s Glorious Quilts. New York: Crown Publishers.
4 Humphrey, Christine. 2010. “Quilt Documentation Projects 1980-1989: Exploring the Roots of a National Phenomenon”. University of Nebraska.
5 Why Quilts Matter. 2022. “History, Art, and Politics: The Kentucky Quilt Project”.
6 Holstein, Jonathan and John Finley. 1982. Kentucky Quilts: 1800-1900. New York: Pantheon Books.

Macy Lethco is a grant writer for an arts nonprofit who resides in Indianapolis, IN. A Louisville native, Lethco received degrees in Linguistics and Spanish from Western Kentucky University. She enjoys narrative storytelling, writing poetry, researching international music, and hanging with her local women's skate crew.