The hands of Appalachian women have lovingly created a legacy of art, family history, and comfort through the weaving of mountain coverlets. Passed from generation to generation, these functional items have gained appreciation as an important American art form.
Textile Art from Southern Appalachia: The Quiet Work of Women features textiles made by nineteenth and early twentieth century handweavers in Southern Appalachia, a region that includes southeastern Kentucky, East Tennessee, western North Carolina, and southern Virginia. This exhibition and its accompanying catalog calls national attention to the extraordinary, yet little known, textile art of weavers from Southern Appalachia; broadens the understanding and appreciation of the American public for this “quiet” but important American art form; and documents and preserves the rich heritage of overshot coverlet weaving from this region for the future.
The greatest pride of the textile artist in Appalachia throughout the nineteenth century and past the first quarter of the twentieth century was the four-harness overshot coverlet. Appalachian handweavers also created fabrics used to make towels, sheets, shirts, pants, table linens, and blankets on family looms.
But it was coverlet weaving, a work of aesthetic value that took considerable talent and energy to achieve, which most clearly expressed the weaver’s creativity and personality. Using the affordable and easily attainable raw materials of home-grown wool and flax or cotton purchased by the bale to be spun at home, Appalachian women created a form of art that was still functional enough to justify time away from everyday household responsibilities. They colored their handspun fibers with natural plant matter or purchased packaged dyes and also used bits of their home-woven fabric to piece quilts. There were easier ways to keep warm, and cheaper bedcoverings were readily available, but the artistic weavers in Southern Appalachia chose to continue to follow the handcraft traditions of their foremothers.
This exhibition is both historically and culturally significant. It is the most extensive collection of woven art from the region ever assembled for the general public, bringing together textiles that remain primarily in the families of their original weavers and/or owners and never before seen outside their local communities. Kathleen Curtis Wilson, author and researcher of Appalachian culture, has said:
“That these artistic creations still survive in their family of origin is testimony that the quiet work of Appalachian women artists was held in the highest esteem by generations of family members who carefully kept the family stories, records, and textiles intact.”
Forty to 45 woven bed coverlets and a small number of quilts made by approximately 30 different weavers are displayed, many of them hung in full-sized splendor. Exhibition objects were selected by guest curator Kathleen Curtis Wilson on the basis of their artistic excellence, superior design, use of color, and quality of execution.
Unlike the worn and faded, dark blue and red, pieces commonly identified with mountain weaving, these textiles include a wide variety of patterns in an incredible array of bright greens, reds, oranges, light blue, magenta, purple, and combinations of colors not usually associated with coverlet weaving. In superb condition, these large graphic art objects make a dramatic and powerfully engaging exhibition. In addition, the exhibition includes handwoven clothing and household linens, weaving drafts, and photographs related to specific weavers, to provide a contextual interpretation of the work of these Appalachian women.
Each textile in the exhibition is a woven work of art that reveals the creativity, as well as the skillful technique, of its maker. The exhibition explores issues of design, composition, color, and technique, showing how an individual weaver’s artistic strengths and choices combined to create the finished work. Some weavers were most interested in pattern design, while others put their creative energies into dyeing and color selection.
The exhibition shows Josephine Mast’s unusual creativity in manipulating various components of a single design to create a wide range of visual effects, giving a viewer the impression that she had used many different pattern drafts.
The work of Callie Hedrick reflects that weaver’s special facility in the creation and use of color. In one coverlet, Callie chose to wind green and red wool on separate bobbins rather than plying the two yarns together. She then wove the coverlet using the separate yarns together, visually transforming two bold colors into a soft, heathery hue.
The exhibition also traces the important role weaving played in Appalachian culture as part of a rich decorative arts tradition that developed and flourished during the nineteenth and well into the twentieth centuries, long after it had died out in other regions. A bit of family history accompanies each piece, transfiguring life’s small incidents into a compelling narrative, providing a more comprehensive look at an art form practiced over a longer period of time and with greater diversity in a little known and often misinterpreted part of the United States.
An appreciation of Appalachian weaving has been hindered by stereotypical images of Appalachia as a poverty-ridden, art-poor region. These images have made it easy to dismiss Appalachia as devoid of objects of art, creativity, and design worthy of special attention. It is a common misconception that all Appalachian women wove every article of clothing and bedding needed to keep their families clothed and warm. It is also believed that these industrious women did this work because they had no other option. The exhibition shows that, in fact, many Appalachian women with great artistic talent wove by choice and not necessity, making a conscious decision to create beautiful objects as a means of celebrating important family members or events. It also shows how some women turned their artistic outlet into a source of income. While some weavers worked at home and sold their goods within the community, others traveled to farms outside their local area to weave on someone else’s loom, staying long enough to weave a good supply of bedding and household linens. A few particularly talented weavers gained fame for their skills and were hired to set up weaving programs in schools, teach others to weave or give weaving demonstrations at national expositions. The work of all these women is exhibited.
Appalachia is a region that has long enjoyed a distinctive artistic tradition developed from a unique combination of cultural, social, and geographical circumstances. This exhibition focuses on the beautiful work of women who continued the weaving traditions of their foremothers long after people in other parts of the country had put away spinning wheels and looms in favor of factory-made materials. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Appalachia is changing rapidly. People are moving in and out of the region, weakening the bonds of family and community memory and removing the objects themselves from their cultural context. Textile Art from Appalachia: The Quiet Work of Women brings together these textiles and their stories, stimulating a new respect and appreciation for the artistic excellence and heritage of mountain coverlet handweaving.
Two East Tennessee museums have joined hands to showcase the legacy of Appalachian women and their craft in the exhibit Textile Art from Southern Appalachia: The Quiet work of Women. The decorative coverlets and other textiles are on exhibit not only at the McClung Museum, but also at the East Tennessee Historical Society Museum, also in Knoxville.
This exhibit marks the first time that two Knoxville museums have worked together to host an exhibit. Jefferson Chapman and Kent Whitworth, directors of the McClung Museum and the East Tennessee Historical Society respectively, issued a joint statement about the significance of sharing the exhibit. The directors said:
“The East Tennessee Historical Society and the Frank H. McClung Museum have a long history of behind-the-scenes partnership and cooperation. This exhibit provides us with an opportunity to show the public how these two institutions work together to preserve, interpret, and promote the heritage of our region. By playing to our individual strengths and combining our energies, we have ensured that the people of our region have an opportunity to see and experience the rich legacy created by these women.”
Tennessee pieces in the exhibit are on view at the East Tennessee Historical Society Museum. That venue also has on display some cards (for carding wool or cotton) and some pattern drafts that accompany the coverlets on exhibit there.
By visiting both museums, guests will not only see the entire exhibit, but will also have the opportunity to experience two of the region’s finest cultural assets.
Curated by Kathleen Curtis Wilson.