Quilting must be a lonesome art. Most quilts don't get seen much. You rarely see the quilts of strangers or casual acquaintances. You may never get to see even your friends' quilts unless you're a guest of an intimate sort. I've seen few of my friends' quilts, or their beds, or their bedrooms. When I'm over, they usually keep me in the kitchen, or out on the driveway.
Quilting must be like writing a weekly column and then just leaving it on your bed, hoping someone picks it up and reads it. It might seem an inefficient way to communicate. But with quilts, the message sometimes makes it through, even when it has to leap across generations.
This past summer I'd heard stories about an unusual "Knoxville quilt" acquired for an undisclosed sum by the East Tennessee Historical Society. I went across the street to have a look. The museum happens to have a interesting show of handmade coverlets from the region. The Knoxville Quilt I'd heard about is not part of that show. It's still under wraps. The historical society means to show it soon, but not just yet. It deserves a show of its own.
My friend Michele MacDonald arranged to have it laid out on a table to look at. The quilt has astonished everyone who has seen it, even professional quilt expert Marikay Waldvogel, who joined us that morning. She seems not to have wholly recovered from the wonder of the thing. "I've never seen anything like this before," she says.
It's technically a crazy quilt, with some patches of plaid, polka-dot, and striped scrap. But there's a peculiar method to its madness. It's not just a quilt, but a series of 12 tableaus of life in Knoxville about a century ago. Stitched with intricate detail involving unusual materials, including twine and leather, several of these scenes are populated with tiny stuffed figures sewn onto the quilt. A three-dimensional horse and wagon features a bit of real leather for the bridle.
The quilt contains more specific information on it than a page of a magazine. Some are just scenes from life: "A DARNED SNOW"; "A RAINY SABBATH." Across the bottom are three scenes depicting black people: one is labeled "Uncle Dennis Hall + donkey." Waldvogel found that, sure enough, there was a black man named Dennis Hall in Knoxville in those days.
Some scenes are patriotic, depicting soldiers of the Civil and the Spanish-American Wars, stitched 1861 and 1898, facing each other across a 38-star American flag. (The sympathy of the Civil War soldier, who wears a sort of bluish-gray, is uncertain.) Waldvogel suspects that a third soldier in profile, stitched "World War 1914," was added later.
There's a second picture labeled Camp Poland/1898 that shows a helmeted soldier in purple standing beside a white tent. Camp Poland was a Knoxville-based training camp for the Spanish-American War.
But several of these little vignettes appear to be advertisements.
A domestic scene of a sideburned Victorian father reading the paper at the dinner table: "I wish Mama would buy bread & cakes at Kern's all the time," he remarks, then follows it with, "I think the Knoxville Sentinel is the cheapest and best paper to take."
Another scene shows a trumpeter in purple beside three tents: "Can't get them up in the morning." Overhead is a picture of an eagle. "Hatched in 1861 / Died in 1881. Old Abe is dead & gone, not so Todd & Armistead's Drug Store, & they cut the prices right." You don't have to be old to remember Todd & Armistead's; it didn't close its Gay St. store until the 1980s. Old Abe, as Waldvogel learned, was the fabled eagle that was known to follow the Union army from battle to battle.
A poor soldier in his tent asks, "Do they think of me at home?" Then he says, "Couldn't write home if paper wasn't so cheap at Ramage's bookstore."
That three-dimensional wagon's marked, "Wiggins and Ownbey, Country Home Dairy on Clinton Pike / Pure Sweet Milk, No Water In It." Were they paid sponsors? Of a quilt?
The largest picture on the quilt, right in the middle, is the most mysterious: a little girl in Victorian garb wading through what appears to be a cypress swamp, calling "Wait for me!" as someone disappears behind a tree before her. Unlike the other labeled depictions, there's no clue about who or where she is.
The artist was apparently so proud of this quilt that she signed it, on a white patch near the bottom: Miss Lillie Harvey, Brandau Hill, Clinton Pike, City.
Waldvogel has done some homework; she discovered a Lillie Harvey living in Knoxville from 1880. Originally from Wisconsin, daughter of English immigrants, that Lillie Harvey was born around 1859, probably never married, and may have worked for a time as a nurse. She spent most of her time living not on Clinton Pike, but on Asylum Avenue, just northwest of downtown toward Mechanicsville; in 1922 she was living in an apartment on Walnut. Then she disappears.
Her quilt surfaced in North Carolina in the 1940s; it drew gawkers at an Atlanta quilt show in 1974. The story of its origin has not survived with it.
Now in the permanent collection of the ETHS, the errant Knoxville Quilt should be on display at the Museum of East Tennessee History sometime in the next few months. Maybe in the meantime we can chase down something more about the elusive Lillie Harvey.