In 1863, the women of the Raus community in Bedford County made a Cherry Basket Quilt and raffled it off to raise funds for the Confederacy. It’s likely they could not imagine a future free of conflict and deprivation. Certainly they could not foresee their work would inspire a quilt created to honor the sesquicentennial of the war ravaging their lives.
Through the work of Johnson City Chapter No. 754 of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and UDC members across the state, that 19th-century basket quilt is being re-imagined. The Johnson City chapter is at the center of the effort, having won the statewide design contest sponsored by the Tennessee Division of the UDC.
In January, just 10 days before the entry deadline for designs, Phyllis Wilson, a member of the state quilt committee, asked Martha Culp, longtime UDC member and master quilter, for help. Mrs. Culp, now 95 no longers quilts, but she recommended Virginia Kennedy of Jonesborough, also a member of the local UDC chapter.
“Virginia Kennedy is a quilting artist,” Phyllis said. “I got on bended knee and pleaded with her to submit a design.”
Virginia said she and Phyllis “pulled out my books and fabrics and looked at a lot of stuff. We saw this particular (basket) quilt in ‘The Quilts of Tennessee.’ This was a good model for the body of the quilt.”
The pieced work’s theme is “A time of remembrance.” The center block is a 20-inch square, which depicts a grandmother, mother and daughter quilting together as they think about their loved ones in the war, she said.
Winning the design contest turned out to be a double-edged sword. The Johnson City chapter was honored but they also were asked to make quilt block kits to be distributed to members across the state. There are 49 chapters, the quilt design called for 68 blocks.
Virginia went to her stock of fabrics to create the kits. “Those 19th-century reproduction fabrics are interesting to me, and I had plenty. It only took about an eighth of a yard per block.”
She also put together detailed instructions — so detailed even someone like Phyllis, who had never pieced a quilt block, could follow it. In fact, Phyllis made six of the blocks.
“Virginia and I cut every piece for the blocks in that quilt,” Phyllis said. “We would work until we dropped and leave it and come back later.”
The pair worked three or four days a week for about six weeks. The kits included instructions, thread, a ruler to measure the quarter-inch seams, colored thread for the appliqued handle, pencils and pens and a card telling about some of the fabrics’ histories. They were distributed to the 48 chapters, then the blocks were gathered. The last week in July a group of 12 women representing different UDC chapters throughout the state gathered at the Livingston public library to put the blocks together, working until 2 o’clock some mornings.
Only the quilting, the most intricate part of the process, remains.
“They decided one person would do the quilting,” said Katie Walker, president of the Johnson City UDC chapter. “It will be one individual, and it will be uniform.”
Who that lone quilter will be has not been determined. She will be a volunteer and she will undoubtedly have a reputation for fine work.
The Cherry Basket quilt pattern was quilted in 1-inch squares, but Virginia isn’t sure the quilter will follow suit.
“The original one had a simple grid in the background,” she said. “It would make sense and be easier to do than quilting around the (basket) triangles.”
Once the quilt is finished, it will come back to Phyllis for a short time. She will print the names of the quilters on the back of the quilt. The original bears the names of its creators as well as the Confederate kin they wished to honor.
Katie Walker said the state president would like to auction the UDC quilt at the 2012 convention. Proceeds would be used to restore Confederate memorials, particularly at Shiloh.
“We’re not celebrating the war,” Katie said, “we’re honoring the Confederate veterans.”