By Serena Vasudeva
MTSU Seigenthaler News Service
Twice a week from 10 a.m. to noon at the Franklin County Senior Citizens Center, friends are hard at work to preserve and protect heirlooms of the quilted kind.
Martha Malloy and Kay Robertson sat next to each other at the waist-high quilting frame in a room reserved for the Busy Bees, the quilting club that has been active at least for the past 40 years. Usually there are three of them at work but Bobbye Cox, another active quilter, is on hiatus to recover from a broken bone.
On a typical day, the women enjoy each other's company and a cup of coffee as they lean close to focus on stitches. Stretched between the rollers of the frame is their latest project, a fan quilt, so named because each panel features fabric pieces in the shape of a fan. Their nimble hands worked on the design that Malloy described as a “traditional, old motif.” The piece had been “quilted in a ditch,” a process that helps the seams pop and catches the eye.
Behind them, a circa 1970s photo of 20 women framed in a flower-themed fabric, is on the wall. These were some of the early members of the Busy Bees. They are among the group who raised funds to purchase a quilting frame and chairs for members to sit in while they work. That was “a long time ago,” Malloy said. Only Robertson knew any of the women in the photo, all of whom have passed on. The women enjoy continuing the tradition the ladies in the photo started.
Robertson was born and raised in Franklin County. Her mother quilted on a frame that hung from the ceiling, forming a tent of sorts that Robertson played under as a child. But Robertson didn’t learn to quilt until she was 40 during a home demonstration club camp.
“I love it. Once you get started, you don’t want to get up and quit,” she said.
Malloy began quilting once she moved from Maryland to Tennessee in 2001 to retire.
“I felt like I needed to get out and be with a bunch of women and just sit around and talk,” she said.
“Now she’s with me,” Kay responded.
Malloy explained that while many women in the area have grown up around quilting, they either choose not to take up the activity or to avoid hand stitching by using machines. Both Malloy and Robertson assemble their quilts by hand with thread, thimbles and the quilting frames. The Busy Bee Quilters used to work on three quilts at a time. Due to a lack of members, however, they now only work on two.
“We’re just barely hanging on because we can’t get anyone to come to learn how to do it. We will teach you, but nobody wants to learn. Machine quilting is just easier,” said Malloy.
When Malloy and Robertson are teaching, they use a round wooden frame with fabric fixed over the top. The tambourine-shaped device, called a quilting hoop, lets beginners practice their stitching. According to Robertson, members often hear the words “I’ll be back next week.” But they don’t, Malloy lamented.
“People do not realize the hundreds of hours that go into making a quilt,” Malloy said.
People who have quilt tops bring them to the Busy Bees for stitching onto a sandwich of batting and backing. Proceeds are directed to funding the center, which hosts events such as bingo nights, dances, yoga and ceramics classes.
“We quilt for the public. That’s what makes us special,” Malloy said.
Both women enjoy working with older quilt tops that haven’t been completed, though Malloy noted they will work to complete any quilt.
Their oldest quilt top was brought in by Stella Hamilton in September of 2021. The piece was created by her grandmother, Betty Hudgins, in the 1930s. Hamilton recalled that her brother Howard also worked on it. At that time, she explained, quilting was a common practice for women who utilized scraps of leftover fabric to create their quilts.
“It was also an artistic outlet for women who really had to work hard to take care of their family all the time. It was a relaxation for them to do this sort of thing,” Hamilton added.
Hudgins’ quilt top sat in storage until the 1970s, when Hamilton had a “resurgence of interest” in quilting. She explained that quilting has always been done but falls in and out of mainstream attention. The trend reached her in the magazines she read, which inspired her and her mother to continue the quilt top.
The finished quilt now resides in Hamilton’s home in Winchester, where she lives with her daughter. In the future, she plans to send the quilt to one of her grandchildren, who lives in Virginia. None of her grandchildren know how to quilt.
“These ladies at the center did a beautiful job. I just couldn’t be happier,” Hamilton said.
Cox learned how to quilt in her early thirties.
“My mother and her friends always quilted. I guess I just picked it up along the way.”
Like Hamilton, Cox has quilts that she wants to pass down. Many of her pieces were started by her mother around 40 years ago, which Cox has finished. She has also worked on quilts made by her great grandmother and her daughter-in-law’s grandmother.
“I think it’s kind of a lost art. A lot of people have quilt tops in their closet that their grandmother or great grandmothers have quilted and they’ve never finished them,” Cox said.
For new quilters, Cox advises patience.
“Just hang in there. It isn’t something you learn in a day or two. If you enjoy doing it, it’ll be rewarding for you.”
Serena Vasudeva is one of nine Middle Tennessee State University journalism students who recently spent two and a half weeks in Franklin County writing stories for the Herald Chronicle. More of their work can be found at www.theroadtripclass.com.