When the Princess coal mine closed, the little town of David, Kentucky was devastated. The income of the families in that secluded, mountainous part of the Kentucky had depended on the mine for the majority of their family budgets. It was a bleak outlook for any of the miners to find work anywhere close to home.
In the magnanimity that is characteristic of the Catholic Church, the St. Vincent de Paul Society stepped in to do what they could to relieve the poverty of the area. But they brought much more than second hand clothing and a soup kitchen. They brought an enterprising young nun who had a brilliant idea.
She put her sewing machine in the back of her little car and went up and down the hills and hollows, reaching out to the women who were a forgotten, suffering part of this tragedy that was being repeated across the coal mining country.
Pulling up outside a mountain cabin, she ingratiated herself with the women. It’s a mountain tradition that you stop outside the fence and holler hello before you march right up to the front door. I can imagine the questioning, suspicious looks that young lady must have gotten as she stopped by to visit with the “woman of the house” But she wasn’t daunted by their initial distrust of strangers and new ways. She used her sewing machine when she could, when the cabin had electricity. She taught them to use the machine but more and more she was astounded by the creativity of these isolated women, some of whom had never left the hollow where they were born.
The quilts they made from the fabric available to them were amazing. Colorful, intricate, showing ability in geometry and engineering from women who had never had the opportunity to go to college, some who had never been past the fifth grade.
Bit by bit, she encouraged them out of their isolation to come down to the mission house that had been built within a stone’s throw of the now silent coal tipple. And they came, using the skills their mothers and grandmothers had taught them to sew, to quilt, to draw and paint and express their creativity in ways that, until now, had always been just part of what they did to keep house and body together.
I came on the scene 20 years later. “From away” as those mountain women would say. I had seen crafts and quilts bearing their name in state park gift shops and I wanted to know more about who they were and what exactly was happening in the little town of David.
As a content producer for Kentucky Educational Television, I had a good enough reason to drive down to David from my home in Northern Kentucky. What I eventually experienced was literally life changing for me. It was a re-education in the things in life that are really important.
I visited David several times and eventually produced a short segment for KET (Kentucky Educational Television) about David Appalachian Crafts. One particular memory has stayed with me and is the impetus for writing this.
One of the ladies at the shop in David was named Anna. She told me that growing up she had wanted to be a nurse but being the youngest in a large family, there was no money to send her to school. She had held various jobs as far away as Prestonsburg and Salyersville but was lucky to have found a place at the craft shop in David.
On one of my visits, Anna shyly showed me a three dimensional quilt she had made. On a blue background was a lovely yellow rose, whose petals reached up from the quilt top. I was fascinated by her work and by the creative process that went into making such a thing.
“Anna,” I asked, “How did you do this?”
“Well,” she answered slowly, “I was out in my yard of a morning and noticed that yellow rose that grows by my back fence. It was so pretty. And I came here and was fooling around with some scraps and I just did it on the tips of my fingers.”
I could never get her to give me any more detail than that. She couldn’t give me any fabric yardages, folding techniques or advice about batting or pressing. All she would say is that she did it on the tips of her fingers.
I remember hearing folk music legend Emmylou Harris say that she felt that “the living-room” had gone out of country music, that “we have all gotten so technical, so caught up in getting everything ‘right’ that the living room is gone.”
I think the same thing has happened in quilting, we have gotten so caught up in other people’s patterns and techniques and fancy sewing machines we have lost the ability to create on the tips of our fingers. It is precisely our creativity, our inspiration that makes a quilt beautiful. Certainly a quilt made from designer fabrics, perfectly constructed according to a designer pattern is a beautiful thing but it lacks the heartfelt emotion that comes from within the quilter.
That is why I love scrap quilts. I love the magic, the mystery, never knowing how it will turn out. I am addicted to the feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment that comes from seeing that quilt top finished. I am always surprised by the amazement that “I did that!” It is wonderfully exciting to connect with the creativity and bounty that exists within all of us.
I have made fancy, intricate quilts and I have made simple, easy quilts that went together without much thinking but it is the patternless scrap quilt that I love the best. It is in that kind of creation we can discover the endless well of creativity within ourselves.