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  [caption id="attachment_159301" align="alignright" width="300"] Howard Blankenship has been quilting since he was a boy growing up in Hayesville.[/caption] When Howard Blankenship was a child, he and his siblings would

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  [caption id="attachment_159301" align="alignright" width="300"] Howard Blankenship has been quilting since he was a boy growing up in Hayesville.[/caption] When Howard Blankenship was a child, he and his siblings would

Stitches in Time


Howard Blankenship has been quilting since he was a boy growing up in Hayesville. photograph by Tim Robison

When Howard Blankenship was a child, he and his siblings would spend the occasional sick day off from school with their grandmother Bertha Blankenship. Her home was “just over yonder” from where Howard lived in Hayesville — a valley scattered with churches, gardens, and barns; full of picturesque lakes that weren’t always there; and surrounded by mountains where the morning fog sometimes settles in the coves until noon. It’s a place where family roots run deep, and rich mountain traditions are treasured and shared.

What we as humans value most is the time we spend with others — building relationships, sharing stories, and passing along the skills and lessons we’ve learned. “It’s the way you live your life,” Howard says, “and who you help along the way.”

And perhaps it’s that simple.

It was Bertha who first taught Howard how to piece a quilt. “Even when we was sick, we had things to do; you didn’t sit around,” he says. “She’d be working on a quilt top, and I’d sit down and cut the squares out and sew them together.”

Howard quilts with his mother’s old Singer sewing machine. photograph by Tim Robison

Even at 10, Howard realized that a boy learning to quilt defied traditional gender roles, particularly those of his generation, but, still, he enjoyed it. He pieced the squares together with his grandmother’s old Singer sewing machine, pushing the pedal back and forth with his feet. By that winter, he had stitched together the whole top of a blue-and-yellow nine-diamond quilt.

Years later, Howard’s mother, Muriel, found that quilt top, and the pair hand-pieced the rest of it together. When Howard moved back into his childhood home to take care of his mother toward the end of her life, Muriel picked up where Bertha had left off all those years ago, continuing to teach Howard how to quilt in the living room of the small mountain cabin that her husband had built.

• • •

Muriel Doyle Blankenship and her eight siblings were raised by their mom, Beatrice Doyle, during the Great Depression. In 1941, they were displaced from their small home in Clay County when the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) began building the Chatuge Dam. At the time, 14-year-old Muriel and her family were barely surviving. A representative from the TVA reported that he “does not know how this family manages to exist.”

It was during that time that Muriel’s older sister Rosie taught her to sew and quilt. In Appalachia during the Depression, learning to sew was necessity. “When my mama first learned to quilt, they’d use old shirts and pants, but mostly feed sacks,” Howard says. Back then, pig feed came in cotton sacks of all different colors and patterns so that people could repurpose them as clothes. “My Aunt Sue wore feed-sack dresses till she died. It was part of being self-sufficient.”

Howard’s mother and aunts quilted together often, using “scraps of fabric, whatever they could find,” Howard says. Later in life, he and his mother made the quilt on the far left together. photograph by Tim Robison

Muriel Blankenship taught her children — including Charlie (in her arms) and Howard — important skills like quilting. Photography courtesy of HOWARD BLANKENSHIP

Muriel and her husband, Joe, raised four children in the small town of Hayesville, and when their youngest entered first grade, Muriel went to work at local sewing plants for the next 27 years. Growing up during the Depression greatly influenced her parenting style: It was important to her to pass along skills to her children that would help them be independent.

“She always wanted to say that she taught all us kids how to quilt, grow a garden, can, and cook,” Howard says. “She always had a quilt up ready to work on in the wintertime, in case she got snowed in or something.” Eventually, she started selling her quilts. “My dad made a big ol’ sign that he put down at the road that said ‘Quilts for Sale,’ and, boy, they sold lots of quilts.”

After Howard graduated from high school, he worked as a logger and then built homes with his dad, brother, and uncle. When Muriel’s health began to decline, he became a full-time caregiver, and the two quilted together. They first decided to work on a mismatched top that had originally been sewn by Aunt Sue’s great-aunt, making it more than 100 years old. “We finished this quilt in a couple of weeks, sewing in the living room,” Howard says. “That time I spent with [my mother] was special. She’d tell stories, talk about things she’d never told me before.”

• • •

This spring, on Peachtree Street in downtown Murphy, another nontraditional quilter became the first artist-in-residence at a new creative space called Olive’s Porch — an extension of the John C. Campbell Folk School.

Zak Foster grew up near Winston-Salem and spent 18 years as a high school teacher before pursuing his love of quilting full-time. He initially learned to quilt out of a desire to create something meaningful for his friends who were having kids. “I wanted to give them a gift that would commemorate how much their lives were changing and how special this event was to them,” he says. “I didn’t expect to become a quilter, but before I had even finished the first one, I had an idea for a second.”

Winston-Salem native Zak Foster started quilting in 2010, and he served as the first artist-in-residence at Olive’s Porch in Murphy last spring. He’s now based in Brooklyn, New York. Photography courtesy of ZAK FOSTER

Foster repurposes tablecloths, clothing, and linens — either found fabrics or pieces of some significance to the recipient — to make his quilts, including Cathedral. Photography courtesy of ZAK FOSTER

Since then, Foster has made more than 100 quilts, some of which have been shown on the red carpet of the Met Gala and at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In addition to learning how to quilt through YouTube and Instagram, he has also gained help and inspiration from his partner’s grandmother in Kingsport, Tennessee. “She was the first quilter I ever met,” Foster says. “Sitting around her kitchen table, Mamaw showed me a lot of the things that she learned from her mom and her sisters, who came from a long line of multigenerational quilters.”

For many, quilting is part of their cultural heritage, and Foster believes that quilt-making is a way of “telling stories and preserving memories; quilts allow us to express ourselves.”

Quilting also cultivates community, he says. “At a quilting bee, you relied on friends and neighbors to come together to help you finish a project. Maybe you liked the people sitting across the quilting frame from you, and maybe you didn’t. But you had to find a way to talk to them and to coexist.”

Howard still lives in his childhood home. photograph by Tim Robison

Howard Blankenship fondly remembers such quilting bees when he was a child, when his mother and her friends quilted upstairs in their home. “Her and her friends would turn one out in a couple of days when they’d have a quilting party up there,” he says. “They’d all get together here and just talk and sew and go. They’d do that every winter, all winter long. Don’t reckon we ever bought a blanket.”

In many ways, quilting is a metaphor for living, evident in the simple beauty of patchwork. To make a quilt, Muriel and her friends used any scraps of fabric they could find. “Patchwork shows us that we work with what we have; we make do,” Foster says. “We don’t always get to choose everything that comes our way, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make something beautiful out of it.”

Students from Tri-County Early College in Murphy helped sew vintage quilt blocks to create the third quilt in Foster’s “Homecoming” series. Each block includes a signature from a member of the community. photograph by ROBERT GRAND

As the artist-in-residence at Olive’s Porch, Foster asked people to send him scraps of fabric. Notes and fabric arrived from people all over the world. These small pieces of fabric became the foundation for a community quilt that Foster created alongside visitors to Olive’s Porch and the Folk School, as well as people living in the rural communities of Cherokee and Clay counties. “One little piece of fabric by itself might not be all that impressive,” Foster says, “but when seen against the backdrop of all these other colors and patterns, it might be just the secret you need to bring the whole thing together.”

In April, students in the Appalachian cultural studies class at nearby Tri-County Early College were among the first to put stitches into the community quilt. They had no prior experience with sewing — some didn’t even know how to thread a needle. But sitting around the quilt at Olive’s Porch, they learned how to tie a quilter’s knot and practiced a running stitch and a quilting stitch. The space came alive with energy, each student engaged in conversation and connection, a modern-day quilting bee.

• • •

As for Howard, he looks forward to quilting another top pieced together years ago by his Aunt Sue’s great-aunt. He has several quilt racks and a few pinned quilts ready to go. He points out hooks in the ceiling of the upstairs room where his mother and her friends would gather. “They’d hang their quilting racks from these hooks, and they’d stand here all day long and quilt,” he says.

Regardless of age or gender, each generation inevitably finds ways to connect with the next — sharing, teaching, and celebrating skills, stories, and experiences, tiny threads tying generations together. That’s ultimately what makes us human.

And perhaps it’s that simple.

Read more about the Smoky Mountains:
Smoky Mountain Roots
Waynesville’s Wonderful Water

This story was published on Sep 26, 2022

Marianne Leek

Marianne Leek is a retired English educator who teaches part-time in western North Carolina. She has written for The Bitter Southerner, Okra, Good Grit, and WNC Magazine.