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This story originally appeared in the Fall 2022 print edition of the Tennessee State Museum Quarterly Newsletter.
By Candice Roland Candeto and Julia Doyle
Equally functional and artistic, quilts provide warmth and decoration in the home. A quilt can speak to the environment of its creator—what materials were available to them, what friends or family may have contributed, and elements of their surroundings that are represented in the quilt’s motifs. Three newly acquired quilts at the Tennessee State Museum provide insight into the artistry, labor, and domestic lives of Black craftswomen in the state. These recent acquisitions allow us to interpret the lives of Tennesseans whose names and stories may be otherwise unknown. Spanning two generations and settings from the domestic to the industrial, these quilts open exciting new opportunities to learn from our material past.
Sometime around 1895, Josie Covington began work on a quilt that is now one of the most treasured examples of Tennessee African American craft. Pieced and appliqued, the remarkable quilt displays a floral square in its center, progressing outward in a design that is at times planned and at times improvisational. Covington’s quilt includes several recognizable patterns, including basket, star, and diamond blocks. Other aspects of the quilt’s design are more unique. Appliqued elements include hands, a footprint, a human figure, and hearts. Covington added improvised blocks in irregular shapes to fill space, integrate squares into the larger design, or stretch the quilt front to fit its backing. The result is a mesmerizing display of craftsmanship and artistry that continues to captivate viewers over a century later.
Josie Covington Quilt, 2022.31.4. Image courtesy of Case Auctions, Knoxville, TN
Covington was in her early twenties when she made this quilt, living with her mother, siblings and five children in Triune, Tennessee—a rural community in eastern Williamson County. Her surroundings were likely lively. Archival documents from the household of Bettie Covington, her mother, depict a bustling home with dozens of children, grandchildren and other relatives coming in and out of a small family farm that raised pigs, cows and a mule. Between the responsibilities of her large family and her job cooking and cleaning for the Pettuses, a neighboring white family, Josie Covington’s days were surely full. Her years were short, however. She died in 1909 of tuberculosis at around 40 years old.
For decades, historians have been drawn to Covington’s quilt, speculating in journals and exhibitions on its meaning and the extent to which its design is an expression of African American identity. The quilt’s story is layered. Family history documents showed that Covington’s white employer, Alice Pettus, had in fact pieced some of the main blocks, identifiable in the quilt by their use of mainstream patterns widely available at the time. Covington then arranged these pieces and combined the blocks with her own additions to create the finished quilt. Her most poignant contributions were appliques traced from her young son’s hands and feet, stitching together the story of her growing family with that of the white family that employed her. Covington’s quilt reminds us that the rich history of Black quilting cannot be reduced to a single style or theme, but that the quilts are as varied and complex as their makers.
Above all, the Covington Quilt teaches us about its craftsperson. Covington’s quilt was likely informed by her aesthetic preferences, cultural traditions, access to materials, and the practical needs of her family. During the time she made this quilt, in addition to her responsibilities in the Pettus household, her days were shaped by pregnancy, childbirth and infant care: from 1891 to 1899, she gave birth to five children. While the quilt continues to fascinate scholars of craft and design, this human context of a gifted Tennessean reminds us that it is as much a story about family and function as it is about artistry and culture.
Strip Quilt, 2022.23.2. Image courtesy of South Bay Auctions.
Unlike Covington’s masterpiece, the majority of quilts in the Museum’s collection were created by unidentified makers. Last May, the Museum acquired two more such quilts made by Black women in Tennessee. The first quilt came with a Hardin County provenance, said to have been made by sisters who worked in a factory making work clothes. Constructed of strips of fabric sewn into long blocks, this “strip quilt” design facilitated resourceful use of a material and ease of piecing while providing ample opportunity for creative expression. In its five blocks, only a few fabrics repeat; most are unique examples, from bright summer cottons to thick neutral woolens. While the quilter carefully cut each piece to the same length, she allowed the widths of the suiting strips to remain irregular, an intentionally orchestrated effect of controlled whimsy.
Zipper Quilt, 2022.23.1. Image courtesy of South Bay Auctions.
By comparison, the second of these quilts is constructed from fewer unique fabrics, using a simple color palette to its greatest effect in a striking zipper pattern. A strip of blue rectangles cuts through the zipper about a third of the way through, presenting an unexpected break in the design. By severing the zigzag, the quiltmaker created a quilt that is playful yet mathematical. We can only make assumptions about how this decision came about: did the quiltmaker engineer each piece to create the intended effect before sewing, or did the pattern develop organically? In either case, the zipper quilt is a testament to its maker’s ingenuity and craftsmanship. Although Black quilting has historically been described as improvisational, all three new quilts to the State Museum’s collection demonstrate both careful forethought and artistic spontaneity. These quilts contribute to developing scholarship, supported by new voices and renewed dedication to close study of surviving textiles, which brings a fuller picture of Black quilting to light.
When learning from quilts, curators pair appreciation of artistry with understanding of historical context. These quiltmakers likely never intended their creations to be displayed in a museum. Instead, the quilts were both art and domestic furnishing, meeting a physical need in a way that was more beautiful than necessary. The quilts were constructed from reused textiles, likely factory byproduct. Thanks to the makers’ astute scrap collecting, this quilt serves as a record of mass garment and textile production in Tennessee. The textiles in this quilt can be considered a curated collection in their own right, brought together and arranged for display by the quilter.
Without knowing their names, we can still learn from these quiltmakers’ stories. A closer look at the world the quiltmakers occupied provides context. In the early 1900s, Tennessee’s textile industry was valued as an employment opportunity for white women. Usually young, these workers embraced a chance at economic independence, but often encountered challenging working conditions in the factories. Labor activists targeted the suffocatingly hot workspaces, hazards from machinery and fibers in the air, long hours, and low wages (see callout box to right). Although often barred by segregation, some women of color did find work in Tennessee textile production—to date, several dozen Black women have been identified between 1920 and 1940. Most were in pressing, folding or housekeeping roles, but some worked in sewing or administration. Laura B. Gracey, a widowed mother in Nashville, was listed as a “seamstress” in the 1930 Census, operating a sewing machine at the center of the factory’s production. Ruby Bohanan, who worked in a Cookeville factory with her two sisters, was listed as a “timekeeper.” Her task demanded attention to detail with important bookkeeping implications. Further research may be able to connect the Museum’s two newly acquired quilts to specific stories like these.
"Interior of a Textile Mill in East Tennessee" Volunteer Voices Collection, courtesy of University of Tennessee Libraries, Knoxville Special Collections.
The exclusion of Black women from textile factory jobs cannot be separated from the longer history of their textile work in the South. From the earliest days of Tennessee history, Black women were central to the cultivation of raw materials like cotton, the skilled crafting of garments and bed coverings, and the ceaseless demands of laundry and mending. If they were indeed employed in a textile factory in the mid-1900s, the Black women who created these two Tennessee State Museum quilts may have navigated a difficult segregated space as an extreme minority, making the quilts they created from a trying experience all the more poignant. Understood as two stitches in the quilt of Black women’s textile work in the state, these new additions to the Museum’s collection are powerful testaments to craftsmanship, creativity, continuance and community.
Part of our strategic collecting plan, these acquisitions support the goal of diversifying the Museum’s impressive quilt collection. Material objects like quilts allow for advancing research into the lives of often anonymous individuals as tangible and visual cues from the quilt open new stories about the past. More examples from the quilt collection can be found in the Tennessee State Museum’s online collection portal, including thirty-three quilts from the 2019 exhibition, Between the Layers: Art and Story in Tennessee Quilts. Greater access to and study from the remarkable products of Tennessee’s diverse craftspeople like these strengthen our understanding of the state’s history and culture.
For more information about women and labor movements in the textile industry, check out our blog “Women and the Elizabethton Rayon Strike of 1929.”
Candice Roland Candeto is the Tennessee State Museum Curator of Fine Art
Julia Doyle is the Tennessee State Museum Curator of Textiles