Monday, September 28, 2015


PLANTATION, Utility Quilt Top 2012 Unfinished, D Duncan

One day long ago. . .when I was probably 9 or 10 years old. . .I remember pedaling my bike to C. A.'s store and noticing quilts on a clothes line behind one of the tar-papered shotgun houses on Adams Street. 'How different,' I thought to myself. 'Odd-looking quilts out of blue jeans.'  It wasn't the first time I had seen blue jeans quilts but it was the first time I saw so MANY--all lined up like field workers on their way to chop cotton. Some had pieces of 'other old fabric' worked in. Some were patched with fabrics other than denim. The remainder were predominantly of blue jeans, joined together in what I thought was haphazard with no plan in mind.
I'd been interested in quilts since I was 3 years old, having spent many days watching Mrs. Turner as she sewed patches together. Her quilts were perfectly pieced and beautifully quilted. But there was something about the line of  'blue jean quilts'  that interested me. I tucked the sight into the back corner of my mind.  As it turned out, it would be many, many years before I'd remember them.
Detail of PLANTATION, D Duncan
Let's fast forward to about 2007--living on the farm I inherited from my Granddaddy Magers. The days were filled with renovation work, building fences, planting flower beds, making it a place to call home. Busy days--but nights and weekends were 'mine'--at least an hour or two here and there--times when I could pursue my interests--Delta history, family genealogy, and anything to do with textiles--quilts, costumes, vintage fashion. . .One day as I thumbed through a few quilt books, looking at the traditional patterns I'd come to know so well over the years, I realized I was bored--bored with seeking perfection in piecing---with the repetition of block after block of the same--the same patterns and designs. Don't get me wrong. I still loved the traditional quilts. I think at that time I had collected well over 100 of them, and I will continue to add to my collection. . .However, to read more books about pattern-based quilts or make another one myself? Nope. My very soul needed something new.
Detail of THE FARM, D Duncan

For a couple of years I had collected utility quilts--the haphazard ones--the work horses of a household--nothing you would bring out to show guests. The one's to spread on the ground for picnics. The one's dogs and cats slept on. The one's draped over the car so there's no dust on it for 'Sunday-go-to-meeting'. I hadn't found many, yet I was drawn to them because they WERE put into everyday use. . .make-do and obviously (to me) had a story to tell. There weren't many on the market. Neither did I find any books on the subject. Was I the only one who saw value in this humble quilt?

Detail of THE FARM, D Duncan
I dusted off the ole computer and did a little 'googling'. Didn't find much on utility quilts except for link after link to Gee's Bend posts--enough that it got my curiosity up. The very first link I clicked on went to a page where 'low and behold' there in dead center was a blue jean quilt! The memory of such quilts I had tucked in the back of my mind many, many years before was now front and center. I read on. I had to know more. I was excited about quilts again. Could we in the Northeast Arkansas Delta have a connection with the quilts of Gee's Bend, Alabama? Were these types of quilts found in other Southern states?
That was the beginning. Since that day, I have found many answers through my own research of census records, books, family stories, interviews, visits to museums, and old records. It's an on-going pursuit. From what I found--and what I remember seeing with my own eyes years ago--I can without doubt say, 'YES. . .There is a connection to the utility quilts of other Southern states.'  Little by little I'm amassing the evidence.
This is the first of many more posts reporting my findings. The 30 quilts from the Arkansas Delta that are 'kinfolks' to the utility quilts from other Southern states will also be shared. There is much, much more to the quilts than a casual glance provides--techniques--symbolism--a record of family histories--and more. These quilts are filled with the lives of their makers.
 Already inspired by the research, I have made several tops of my own that I will show you in more detail later also. They are filled with the symbolism, colors, and techniques of the Southern utility quilts but designed in my own style. You're seeing a glimpse of three such quilt tops in this post. But before I share my quilts and how I incorporated the age old techniques, I must build a foundation for you. If you are like me, you may not have heard of any of this before. This post marks the first of many more about the humble utility quilts and their association with our own Delta heritage. Hope you'll come along with me on my fascinating journey. . .

THE FARM, Utility Quilt Top 2013 Unfinished, D Duncan
 I have to say. . .I'm no longer bored. . .and. . .
NORTH FORTY, Utility Quilt Top 2011 Unfinished, D Duncan
NORTH FORTY, Utility Quilt Detail D Duncan