Thursday, October 29, 2015

DELTA QUILT SERIES: Denim Britches Quilts

"I made all my quilts out of old shirts and dress tails and britches legs. . .whatever part of the pants wasn't wore out, like the pants legs, cause the knees mostly be wore out--we pick cotton on our knees." Loretta Petty, Architecture of the Quilt
As cooler weather arrives and thoughts of winter come to mind, I--like the Delta women before me--begin to think about keeping the family warm. . .Luckily, all I have to do is turn on the central heat and bring out a few blankets. . .Not so in the past. . .when making quilts for warmth was a necessity for winter survival.
At their very root, utility quilts are just that--objects made for warmth. . .not a lot of value is  placed on precise piecing and stitching. . .or buying new fabrics and pattern books. . .Often, these everyday quilts aren't all that pretty in a traditional sense . . .Yet, once a person realizes that they are in a category of their own. . .and recognizes  characteristics in common. . .the Southern utility quilts take on a certain charm. . These are not the quilts of  affluence. . .They were first and foremost a necessity when the cold winds of Southern winters blew through the tenant houses that were built with poor construction and little insulation. . .Yet, looking beyond the need for warm covers, there is something appealing about these practical everyday quilts. . ...'Make the pieces fit' but in a pleasing manner. . .and use the technique called improvisation to do it. . .


As I began to research local Delta quilts in the light of those in other Southern states, I found that I had to remind myself to see these quilts in a much different perspective--to see them for what they are. . .to see the beauty of them as a connection to the life of sharecroppers and tenants. . .These quilts tell a story, if we will only look closer.
Finding quality examples of Southern utility quilts is not easy. . .simply because most were in use everyday and were not considered to be collectable. . .Over the years, most of the quilts have disappeared. . .The discovery of these three britches quilts was exciting. . .Even though they are in disrepair, they are good examples  of similar ones found on the plantations and farms in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. . .
Britches or britchy quilts are sometimes called work-clothes quilts. . .They are probably my favorite. . .but the hardest to find thus far. . .Although I don't know the specific stories behind them, I'm certain that the old shirts and denim have seen their share of picking cotton and farm work. . .They have been aged through many washings and much wear and tear. . .
'Tenant farmers in the South wore a muted palette of browns, grays, and blues. . .Old denim pants and overalls, field-worn and sun blocked, create a rich spectrum of dusty blues. . .wear-tears, stain, patches, mendings and faded seams provide further nuances. These characteristics are an integral part of the work-clothes aesthetic. . ." Architecture of the Quilt
It so happens that two of our vintage britches quilts are similar in construction. . .Of course, any quilt that utilizes denim or any other work pant qualifies. . .I chose these first quilts because they are constructed in the simplest of ways. . .It is the METHOD of piecing that is the key to understanding them. . .
The first two examples are sometimes called the 'Lazy Girl'. . .I'm sure you can see why. . .Strips of any good fabric from cast-off work clothes are sewn in vertical rows. . .every inch of that fabric is incorporated. . .including the removed pocket areas where there is less fading. . .The 'batting' in this particular quilt is old work shirts. . .worn and torn. . .laid flat . . .between the top and the backing. . .hand-in-hand with the characteristics of other Southern rural utility quilts: 
  • Strips in vertical rows
  • Every part of the clothing is utilized, including the underneath side of the removed pocket
  • Batting of old work shirts
  • Not enough denim to finish the quilt, so a patch of khaki is added
  • Backing from flour sacks
  • Binding folded over from the back and stitched
  • Use of large utility stitches to hold the three layers together

Here's another example of the 'Lazy Girl' style. . .pieced with the same method yet looking different due to the fabrics at hand. . .
  • Vertical strips
  • Covering another quilt underneath that was too worn to use, making this quilt thick and heavy
  • Backing from printed feed sacks in a random fashion
  • Tacked to hold the layers together
  • Bound by folding the backing to the front and stitching

Our third britches quilt is a type of medallion pattern at it's simplest form. . .The center is constructed first. . .usually dictated by the largest piece of salvaged fabric the maker has. . .Then strips are added around it until the desired size is achieved. . .fairly traditional. . .but without using a planned and precise pattern. . .It is another 'make-do' creation. . .
  • Use of work clothes
  • Flour sack backing
  • Very thin with only a little fabric as batting
  • Patching of holes in order to make larger pieces of fabric (Love the heart shapes)
  • No matching of fabric patterns in the strips
  • Binding by folding the front to the back and stitching
  • Utility quilting stitches in the Baptist fan style
  • Use of unconventional black thread for quilting, possibly the only color that was on-hand

This quilt would be very easy to copy the method of piecing. . .It would come together fairly quickly. . .I was so excited when I found this one that I could barely contain my enthusiasm while negotiating a price with the owner. . .He saw it as a 'rag'. . .so there wasn't a lot of convincing to do. . .'One man's trash is another wo-man's treasure'. . .(grin)

The britches quilts may look like rags to some. . .and of little value to others. . .but when you look below the surface, you begin to see their connection to farm history. . .Make-do. . .Creative. . .The Remnants of Hard work and Survival. . .Priceless to this Farmer's Daughter.
In future posts, I'll share more techniques of construction and reveal a few of the signs and symbols often incorporated into Delta quilts. . .I have many more to show you. . .We've only begun our journey.

GEES BEND: ARCHITECTURE OF THE QUILT, by Paul Arnett, William Arnett, Bernard Herman, Maggi Gordon, Diane Mott, Dilys Blum, Lauren Whitley, Amei Wallach, Joanne Cubbs, Tinwood Books, 2006