A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

[caption id="attachment_177923" align="alignright" width="300"] Writer Amy Bonesteel Smith (right) grew up watching her mother, Georgia Bonesteel, share her love of quilting in books, on television, andin the classroom.[/caption] The first

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

[caption id="attachment_177923" align="alignright" width="300"] Writer Amy Bonesteel Smith (right) grew up watching her mother, Georgia Bonesteel, share her love of quilting in books, on television, andin the classroom.[/caption] The first

Writer Amy Bonesteel with her mother Georgia Bonesteel

Writer Amy Bonesteel Smith (right) grew up watching her mother, Georgia Bonesteel, share her love of quilting in books, on television, and
in the classroom.
photograph by Tim Robison

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of my mother are her powerful, sinewy, and beautiful hands. As the daughter of famous quilter Georgia Bonesteel, I thought they could make just about anything. When they weren’t cutting material, guiding stitches through the sewing machine, or washing dishes, one of her hands would reach over the passenger seat to hold mine during long car rides. With my dad at the wheel, my brothers and I vied for the busy hand’s attention.

When I was 9, my family relocated to Hendersonville, then a small town. As with previous moves, my parents were quick to experience the local culture. We attended Friday night community auctions on King Street, watched clogging at the Apple Festival, and went hiking in Pisgah National Forest. Southern drawls, gravel roads, and generations of hardworking people who’d settled in the mountains became part of our everyday lives.

As the daughter of a federal prosecutor, my mother moved numerous times during her own childhood, and she was quick to embrace the fabric of a community. Likewise, before we settled in Hendersonville, we moved frequently because my dad worked as an auditor for Shell Oil. Originally from the Chicago area — where my parents met and married — we also lived in Minneapolis, Minnesota; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and then New Orleans in the late 1960s.

Georgia Bonesteel, age 87, at work on her sewing machine.

At age 87, Bonesteel is still hard at work sewing pieces of fabric into colorful quilted works of art and teaching others how to do the same. photograph by Tim Robison

In Louisiana, before the rest of us could learn how to crack open a crawfish, my mother was dishing up weekly meals of red beans and rice, loading us into the station wagon to get hot beignets from Café Du Monde, and participating in bicycle races that wove through the French Quarter. New Orleans was also where she began her career as a seamstress.

She had learned of a Saturday contest, held at the nearby Krauss Department Store, where participants modeled outfits that they’d made using the store’s fabrics. The prize? A chance for a spot on a local daytime TV program that demonstrated how to make home decor and clothing on a Sears Kenmore sewing machine. A home economics, clothing, and textile major in college, my mom landed the spot by wearing a swinging ’60s vest-dress ensemble that she made. (It may have helped that she was also a Jane Pauley lookalike.)

• • •

Several years later, in 1974 Henderson County, the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site had just opened in Flat Rock, and my mom was one of the first volunteers. She also found a job teaching sewing at Henderson County Technical Institute ­— now Blue Ridge Community College — after going there to show the patchwork bags she’d made using my dad’s old neckties. A request for full-size quilts led her to explore the craft, and she rushed to learn and teach, in that order. She pioneered her own method of “lap quilting” — working on one block at a time and employing a sewing machine for quilt-top construction — which eliminated the need for a bulky frame.

Georgia Bonesteel on TV

Bonesteel shared her quilting ingenuity on a popular PBS program that started in the 1970s. Photography courtesy of “THE LAST STITCH,” LAP QUILTING WITH GEORGIA BONESTEEL, PBS NORTH CAROLINA, EPISODE 13, SEASON 2, 1982

“I’m proud to say our [adult learning] class became the most filled on campus,” she wrote in her 2018 memoir and pattern book, Scrap Happy Quilts. But it was my grandmother’s suggestion that my mom should pitch a quilting “how-to” show to UNC-Chapel Hill’s PBS station that led to her regional breakout. Producers loved the concept, and in 1976, she filmed at UNC’s Swain Hall. Thirteen 30-minute episodes of Lap Quilting With Georgia Bonesteel followed, and the show continued for 12 seasons.

She initially incorporated our hometown into her shows by featuring quilters from her classes and those she met in the Asheville-Hendersonville area. As the founder and first president of the Western North Carolina Quilters Guild and a founding member of two more local guilds, she made the craft “official,” and dozens of quilters joined and connected with one another.

• • •

As my mother’s confidence grew, her creativity flourished. Inspired by our surroundings, many of her original designs included the rolling hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. While sewing, she eagerly employed innovative techniques and tools like “Grid Grip” — a quarter-inch grid printed on freezer paper that she invented and trademarked.

Her growing success and numerous commitments allowed my parents to purchase a hardware store, and my dad subsequently left his job at Shell. The business kept him in Hendersonville, and my mom juggled work, cooking family dinners, and attending my school and sports activities.

Collection of patchwork purses with gold straps

Bonesteel used repurposed scraps of fabric, including silk neckties, in her patchwork purses. photograph by Tim Robison

In a neighborhood of ranch-style houses, we lived in a curiously designed home off Kanuga Road. It had a circular gravel driveway, a covered passageway where cars could drive through the center of our home, a flat roof, and an upstairs kitchen. A downstairs quilt studio was added later. It was positioned thoughtfully so my mom could perch at her sewing machine and look out into the yard.

Before she moved into her studio, my mom’s projects — patterns, implements, and swaths of fabric — were scattered across the upstairs dining room table. Most of our daily meals were eaten in the kitchen, leaving the dining room table empty for her quilting until a holiday meal took priority. It’s embarrassing to admit, but we were often too distracted to notice the amazing creativity that was on display right in front of us as we hurried to school, jobs, and social activities.

• • •

But no matter how beautiful my mother’s quilts are, they were secondary to her teaching. Over the years, countless people have asked me how to buy one of her quilts, and I always explained that she is above all a teacher. Selling quilts was never her primary ambition although her artistic designs have won dozens of awards.

The second-most-asked question I get is: “Do you quilt?” I do not, having neither the patience nor the knack for sewing. My mother says that quilting skips generations. Her great-grandmother Lottie was a magnificent seamstress and quilter, and although her mother, Virginia, could sew well, she never caught the quilting “bug.”

Scrap Happy Quilts book and quilting supplies

Bonesteel has shared many of her quilting techniques and tips — like using Grid Grip — in books so that quilters near and far can bring their ideas to life. photograph by Tim Robison

When I was a senior at East Carolina University in 1985, my mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor, an event that threw our family for a loop. I remember the long drive across the state on I-40 to visit her in Asheville’s Memorial Mission Hospital, my thoughts of college and graduation momentarily pushed aside. Thankfully, it turned out to be a nonmalignant acoustic neuroma. True to form, she did not let it slow her down for long.

As she continued her series for UNC-TV and went on to publish 10 books, her focus was always on her students. Meeting quilters and answering their letters and emails still inspires her, at age 87, to continue teaching.

• • •

As time passed, my brothers, dad, and I saw that we were one triangle — or four — in the colorful design that makes up my mom’s pieceworked, king-size quilt of life. Important ones, surely, but still just a few of her many passions.

Since I moved back to the Hendersonville area in 2021 after being away for 35 years, I’ve seen that my mother makes up her very own Blue Zone — the name given to parts of the world where seniors remain extraordinarily active and live longer. Besides teaching quilting, she is a caregiver for my dad and a Master Gardener who volunteers at least twice weekly. She is also in a book club and a Bible study, and plays hours of Rummikub every week.

People like my mom show us all how to keep going. For her 80th birthday, her grandchildren sang an original song written by my daughter, Georgia, called “Color Outside the Lines,” which perfectly describes my mother’s approach to art. Long may she keep coloring.

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This story was published on Jan 01, 2024

Amy Bonesteel Smith

Amy Bonesteel Smith is a freelance writer in Flat Rock. Her work has appeared in Time, The New York Times Magazine, Parenting, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Georgia Trend, and Greenville Business Magazine, among others. She is also teaching an online writing seminar at The Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site. Smith is a graduate of East Carolina University, with a master’s degree in English from Georgia State University.