A Stitch in Time

Museum Director Pelham Lyles holds a quilt top that was embroidered in 1895 by the good women of Fairfield County’s Bethel ARP Church as a fundraiser. Donors whose names are stitched into the quilt top include not only well known Fairfield County names, but such notables as British Prime Minister W. E. Gladstone, indicated by Lyles, and former S.C. Gov. Benjamin R. Tillman.

WINNSBORO — Handcrafted needlework and decorative fabrics were an integral part of rural life in Fairfield County in the 19th century, and this summer many of these intricate, locally-made needlework treasures are on display at the Fairfield County Museum. The exhibit, “From Fields to Textiles: Needle Arts from the Collection,” opened in June as part of the Fairfield County Ag+Art festival. It features Fairfield County needlework from the early 1800s to the present, including quilts, a variety of traditional needlecrafts and tools of the textile trade.

Museum Director Pelham Lyles said the exhibit features several pieces from the museum’s permanent collection, some of which are on display for the first time.

Walking visitors through the quilt collection, Lyles points out the wide variety of quilting patterns and styles on display, which range from plain to wildly inventive. While some fabrics are adorned with needleworked local buildings, flora and fauna, many feature geometric patterns like the ‘strawberry patch.’

“Some of these quilts were probably made by African-Americans, who would often collect and save the last pickings of cotton in the winter after the crop was done, and use that to create beautiful textile crafts,” she said.

“And, of course, everyone saved old clothes which were cut up and sewn into ‘crazy quilts.’ We have a great example of a crazy quilt made from silks. Even though the dyes were very acid, which damages the silk, the embroidery work they did on top of the silk has retained the fabric underneath just by holding it together,” Lyles said. “Back then, fabric was saved and re-used as long as possible.”

One of the featured artists in the exhibit is Swiss native Lily Fox, who was highly regarded in the Fairfield community for her exquisite hand-made laces, embroidery and beadwork and much loved for her volunteer work in the community. Fox, who died last December at 77, came to America in 1980 and lived in Winnsboro since 2000. The display of her work in the exhibit includes a Hardanger sampler, which is an intricate, white-on-white style of embroidery that originated in ancient Persia.

“Lily’s work was just gorgeous,” Lyles said. “She studied with the Embroider’s Guild of America, and taught courses in needlework at the University of Minneapolis and elsewhere. She was extremely skilled at reticello needleweaving, pulled thread and a variety of embroidery methods.”

The exhibit also contains a display of tatting, which is a durable lace constructed with knots and loops. Jane McMaster, a volunteer at the museum in the mid-1900s, was known for her delicate tatting, and several examples of her work are part of the exhibit, along with earlier examples.

A highlight of the exhibit is a large 1895 Signature Quilt from the Bethel Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in Winnsboro. It features a ‘chain stitch’ technique and was created by the church’s Ladies Benevolent Society as a fundraiser. The 778 names of donors on the quilt include the Hon. W.E. Gladstone, Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1892-1894; John G. Evans, Governor of South Carolina from 1894 –1897; State Sen. Benjamin R. Tillman, who also served as the Governor of South Carolina from 1890–1894.

Textile tools on display include curious implements such as a needlework clamp and Victorian sewing birds. There are also a variety of beaded handbags, embroidered silk evening gloves, an embroidered tea cozy and even Victorian hair jewelry, which is delicately woven from real, starched hair.

And of course, several examples of cross-stitch samplers are featured, the oldest of which was sewn in 1819. These sewing tablets usually contain the alphabet, a bible verse or family names and were often created as practice sheets for young girls learning to sew.

“We’ve learned quite a bit about the museum’s textile collection from specialists in the histories of specific needlepoints,” Lyles said. “It’s fascinating to see how a handmade textile is dated and to learn about the origin of the imagery. This exhibit is a great way for visitors to gain an awareness of the fabric arts that were part of rural life here in Fairfield County.”

The exhibit will be on display at the museum through the summer, and admission is free.