January 15, 2018

I don’t think I have told too many people, except the folks in Sweden (who were forced to listen to my presentation), about all this quilt design madness that I seem to have fallen into. It is important to me to tell people what my motivations are for doing this and how it connects to me personally. At least, it makes for more interesting reading… so, let’s talk about some Truth, shall we??


The Truth


When I began, I approached my presentation academically. I had a pile of books and some quotes, and I sat down, straightened my glasses, and pretended to act as if I liked to shuffle papers and cite things.


The truth is…. I could talk about the history of American quilts, and begin by saying that the vast majority of early quilts were made of imported cotton or silk. They were also typically “Medallion” style, which means the quilt had a large motif often surrounded by block-work to balance the central design.


​​I could also mention that Star quilts began to emerge in the early 1800s. Also, other pieced patterns emerged - Nine patch, Flying Geese, Wild Goose Chase.  At the same time, textile printing processes were being improved, and a variety of fabric choices was available, which might have lead to piecework. (Kiracofe100)



​​It is also important to recognize just how, to a great degree, slavery and the textile industry are woven into the history of the United States.


I would note that it is very important to acknowledge the invention of the cotton gin and how it fueled a boom in slavery in the U.S. This invention that cleaned debris and seeds from cotton through the process of mechanization, made it possible to increase output of the raw material that went into fabric. At the same time, around the 1820s, the textile industry in the northern United States was beginning to take off. (Kiracoff 84) There are direct links between wealthy northern merchants using capital raised by the slave trade in order to build cotton mills. Those mills produced fabric for the U.S. market and for consumption abroad. (Bailey 45-47)


The fabric used in the majority of the quilts we admire that were made before the Civil War was born out of the trauma that is American slavery. It should be named, recognized, and accepted.


Following the Civil War, one of my favorite quilt patterns, “Log Cabin”, materialized. There is conflicting information about the origins of this pattern. Some say it is influenced by Egyptian mummies (Kiracofe 136), and some from a political landscape. Abraham Lincoln used the log cabin as an iconic symbol of the American Pioneering Spirit. (Shaw 158) The quilt pattern “Log Cabin” has a similar origin in time. Draw your own conclusions.



​​But I’m not interested in reciting facts and dates.


The truth is, when I began painting quilt piecework on wooden ware, I didn’t sit down and think about how I could make my next strategic career move based on what I’ve read, or how I could somehow make my work reflect the history of the United States.


The truth is it’s all kind of a happy accident.


It’s not as if I don’t like history. Or read. Or think. Or think about what I read.


But any sources about what I’m doing and how I got here would be about me seeing my journey from where I am now. In retrospect, everything is clearer.  So, I'll spare the reader any self-aggrandizing.


The truth is, every time I try to think about what I should be doing, I immediately start thinking too much and everything I try to make is garbage.


When I take my ego out of the equation, my work is better. Always.


The truth is... just before I go to bed at night I  ask myself how I could decorate bowls. I can’t help myself. I like to decorate things. I was an art major in college. I’ve always been interested in all the elements and principles of art. They are part of my design language.


The problem was, I wasn't making bowls, and I wasn't painting anything. I was stuck.


Something was missing. What was it?


The truth is, it took a few years before “It” happened. And what happened was that I quit woodworking.


Let me explain:


I moved home after being away for 10 years. Home, for me, is a difficult place to be. I’m from Appalachia (not the poorest area in Appalachia) but Appalachia is one of the poorest and most rural regions in the US. My family, on both sides, has roots there and it’s where I live now.




Part of what is significant about Appalachia is that even though there aren’t many opportunities, family and local community have always been important. You could even say we’re a little skeptical of “outsiders”. At home, I’ve routinely introduced myself by my last name, followed by a list of people in my family, so that a person might know me. Once I do that, we have a foundation to start our conversation.


When I made the decision to move home, I did so knowing that I wouldn’t have many opportunities to support myself, let alone make Folk Art and expect to live on that income. But, I figured if I was going to make minimum wage, I might as well work for myself.


I started making small items to sell at our local farmers’ market. Following the breakup with my longtime boyfriend (with whom I’d started my business), I continued to sell there, but I hated it. I didn’t feel connected to what I was making. It didn’t come from my heart. I disliked the process of conventional woodworking; it was loud, dusty, and hurt my body to stand in one place all day sanding.


My work reflected my internal life. I was skirting around what I actually felt compelled to make by telling myself, I’ll get to that later when there is more time, more money...more energy. I was doing the same within myself as well. I came to a point where I was completely exhausted and broke, and I thought, “Why am I doing this to myself? What is the point?”


I was afraid.


So, I did what any rational person would do.


I started working at a liquor store.


That was the best decision I ever made.


Not having a financial bottom line to worry about afforded me the ability to free up emotional and creative space to make the things I wanted to make; the things I saw in my mind before I drifted off to sleep each night.


I also discovered that my creativity was linked to healing. While at the liquor store, I was constantly subjected to misogyny - even from my boss. Being in that environment forced me to face my own past trauma; something I had been avoiding for years. By beginning that healing process and owning my own story, I gave myself permission to face the fear of being vulnerable. More than anything, I wanted to feel secure in myself and what I was making. I wanted to feel connected and to have my story reflected in my work.


So much carving I saw was very Scandinavian. That’s not a bad thing, but I kept thinking, “I’m not Swedish. I don’t know their stories or culture. How can I use their decorations if I don’t know what they mean?” It felt a little like cultural appropriation. I wondered, “How can I make my work relevant to my culture? What is my folk art?”


I had been thinking of quilt patterns, but, I was afraid of what my community would think. Would the people who steered American woodworking dismiss my voice? Would I be hurt by being vulnerable?


I was compelled to be authentic, no matter the cost. And as I thought of my own culture, I thought about the United States, the east coast, the mountains, my family and our stories.


I remember the story of my Grandmother’s brother, Uncle John, who was born too early and they had to keep him warm on the wood cookstove until he was bigger. It was my Grandmother’s job to watch him and make sure he didn’t get too warm.




As a result, Uncle John had asthma until his family took him to a Native American doctor who gave him a bag of herbs and a pipe to smoke his medicine. He never had asthma again.


I’m reminded of another story told by my other Grandmother who grew up in China, the daughter of missionaries. They lived there right before the Communist Revolution, and actually had an un-detonated bomb make a hole in the roof of their home. One day, my Great Uncle was misbehaving by playing with matches in the house and his sister said, “Don’t do that! God can see you!”


He replied, “No, he can’t!”

“Yes, he can!” she said, and pointed up to the hole in the roof.


That story and my own story make me who I am.




There are also sad stories in my family. Stories of slave owners, of coal miners, alcoholism, and suicide. These stories are not to be glossed over. They make us who we are.


They are things that should be named, recognized, and accepted. They are part of what healing is all about.


The truth is, you cannot pull quilts away from their stories. Just as my story is connected to my work, quilts are connected to the people who made them and their own context.


Some of the ways that quilts have been directly affected by personal stories are really compelling and dependent on the American Experience.


That makes sense to me, because the things we make are a reflection of us .


They have even been made as a creative outlet for coping with systemic racism, as is seen with the story of “Freedom Quilt”, made by Jessie B. Telfair. Ms. Telfair “...created this quilt after being fired from her job as a cook at the Helen Gurr Elementary School in Parrott (Georgia) because she tried to register to vote. Telfair was among many Southern blacks who answered the call of voter registration drives organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC) in 1963. After losing her job, Telfair took up quilting full-time and students from the SNCC suggested that she make a “freedom quilt”.” (Shaw 268)




What a powerful statement.


See, our stories influence what we make. Our culture informs our decisions.


So, the question I'm eternally asking myself is, “ How does what I'm creating connect to me personally? Why do I like what I'm making? Why does it speak to other people?”


For me, quilts partially symbolize my family stories and our culture. They tell of individual creativity, power, and economics. These pieces of folk art are a tangible connection I share with the past, and it’s important, because if I cannot see my past, individually, and culturally, my work will have no future.






Baker, Ronald. “The Other Side of Slavery: Black Labor, Cotton, and Textile Industrialization in

Great Britain and the United States.” Agricultural History, Vol. 68, No. 2, Eli Whitney’s Cotton Gin, 1793-1993: A Symposium (Spring, 1994), pp.35-50. Agricultural History Society. JSTOR,


Kiracofe, Roderick. The American Quilt A History of Cloth and Comfort 1750-1950. New York:

Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 1993.


Shaw, Robert. American Quilts The Democratic Art, 1780-2007. New York/London: Sterling,


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© 2017 by Amy Umbel                                                                                                                                                         

Photography by Soula Pefkaros