Quilted History

star of the republic pieced quilt in flying goose pattern

Quilting, for my family, is all but a lost art, passed down from the matriarch of each family to the next in line—from mother to oldest daughter and so on. As the second grandchild to the youngest daughter of one side of my family, this traditional skill was, in fact, not passed down to me; however, though the skill is short-lived along my branches, the influential family tradition began many years before a culmination of three generations’ worth the efforts in the form of a quilt. This quilt is one of the longest-surviving quilts in the family that was passed to me from my mother from my grandmother from my grandmother’s mother-in-law, from my grandmother’s mother from my great-great-grandmother’s mother-in-law. My great-great grandmother, great-grandmother, and grandmother all worked in the same textile factory over the years and, at one point, at the same time. The structure of southern textiles in conjunction with southern agriculture shaped my family’s history for generations and was heavily influenced by proceedings such as the New Deal and other regulatory measurements in the 1930s and 1940s.

The quilting tradition came from necessity of reuse and reinvention from poverty-stricken rural areas, though the Stowes were well-off enough to afford new clothes from time to time as opposed to the Sorrows, who patched their clothes until they were threadbare and made of more patches than original cloth. The two families were primarily rooted in self-sustaining agrarian life rather than tenant farming, but the two still made the best uses out of their few belongings. Lily, my great-great-grandmother’s mother-in-law, was the first hand to take to making this particular quilt, starting in 1940—“She didn’t work, you know. You didn’t work then. You took care of the house.”[1]

Over the course of a few years, she cobbled together intricate patterns of stars made out of her grandchildren’s clothing—“Not the mangey ones or ones with holes. She came and would get all mine and my brothers’ and sisters’ clothes and make sure they were good enough and put them all together.”[2] When she grew too elderly to continue the quilt, Lily passed it to her daughter Evelyn, who married a Stowe. Evelyn Stowe worked in the Porterdale Bibb Manufacturing Company textile mill eventually alongside Clara Sorrow, my grandmother’s mother-in-law. Evelyn stitched together the major blocks of Lily’s quilt and eventually gave it to Clara to finish.

Clara Sorrow, who later worked alongside my grandmother, Mary Sorrow neé Stowe, took the cotton cloth from one of the Bibb Manufacturing textile mills and stitched it to the bottom of the top sewn by Lily and Evelyn. My grandparents argued about the type of fabric used and the filling for the quilt:

Mary Sorrow: I think Clara filled it with polyester filling and put a thin little backing on it. It isn’t what Lily would have wanted, but she didn’t ask me. She used that white thread too when I know mama wanted to use burgundy, but she didn’t ask her either.

Irwin Sorrow: The thread doesn’t matter, and no, we didn’t have polyester. She used cotton, Mary. She took it straight off the gin and took it home. She didn’t use some flimsy backing, either, because it’s still around. She’d been quilting as long as your mama had.[3]

The cotton taken from Bibb Manufacturing in Porterdale was primarily used to clean, process, spin, and begin weaving cotton from the nearby fields in the one plant where my great-grandmother worked. In the other plant, my great-grandfather and, later, my grandfather worked to fix machinery and transfer other half-finished goods from the one mill to the next process—making towels.[4] “I still have a scar here from when I had to reach into one of the machines that got stuck,” Irwin Sorrow said, rolling up his sleeve. “We were told to fix it for ourselves however we could before we asked anyone else for help.”[5] These conditions were still improved from previous eras and continued to improve as a whole with the introduction of the New Deal and its following effects.

Shortly after the Great Depression and the beginning implementation of Roosevelt’s New Deal, the South began to show drastic effects. More specifically, the Sorrow family had been devoted to agriculture, but with the Great Depression, farming was the least lucrative profession and means of production, forcing agrarian society to turn toward urbanization.[6] This rural economy was already suffering under the weight of market saturation since the primary crop for the area was, in fact, cotton and the New Deal’s Agricultural Adjustment Administration “hoped that by drastically decreasing the amount of land devoted to cotton, the AAA would arrest its long-plummeting price decline,”[7] but as a result, the expropriation of land made for unhappy farmers with little means other than that which was being cut.

The 1934 textile strike[8] drove the Porterdale mills to implement military force: “This action locked out strikers and kept the mills from unionizing.”[9] The poverty of the South and for rural families increased for some time despite the National Recovery Administration’s efforts to improve work conditions as a result of layoffs because of the demand on, specifically, mills to provide better wages and conditions for their workers.[10] The NRA’s pushes were finally accepted “in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which set a national minimum wage of $0.25/hour (eventually rising to .40/hour,”[11] but shortly after this time, my grandfather’s father lost his job at the mill as a result of cutting costs—two failures caused by the same industry.[12] The major industries in Georgia had been decimated, in part, and took quite some time to recover; however, “During World War II (1941-45) the company was the largest war-industry producer in Georgia.”[13] My grandfather and his brothers then had to provide for their family once they were old enough to begin working, and in the post-war economy, they were able to do so, ironically doing the same thing that their father had done—agriculture, then textiles.

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In 1949, my family’s multi-generational quilt was finally finished by my grandfather’s mother, Clara Sorrow, and was later passed to my grandmother, Mary Sorrow, after years of work. The start date for the quilt is not included on the piece, but the end date is stitched into the corner. The culmination of agrarian life and textile industry collided to bring the two parts of this family together to create a tapestry reflective of their struggles with poverty and is made from the very items in which the two families were most well versed—cotton and textiles. The reflections of sociopolitical happenings come out most noticeably in every single diamond of fading, threadbare fabric from my grandmother’s clothes and in every weeping cloud of cotton coming from those threadbare spots.

Sidney Cook is an undergraduate student at Georgia State University, where she majors in English. This post is part of our Unofficial Archives series.

References

[1] Mary Sorrow (grandmother) in discussion with the author, November 2017.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Irwin and Mary Sorrow (grandparents) in discussion with the author, November 2017.

[4] Irwin Sorrow (grandfather) in discussion with the author, November 2017.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Matthew Downs, ed., “The Great Depression,” AmericanYawp, http://www.americanyawp.com/text/23-the-great-depression/.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Arden Williams, “Bibb Manufacturing Company,” New Georgia Encyclopedia, October 13, 2006, http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/business-economy/bibb-manufacturing-company.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Matthew Downs, ed., “The Great Depression.”

[12] Irwin Sorrow in discussion with the author.

[13] Ibid

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