The story often is told through the generations, with outsiders never really learning the meaning behind clever designs or beautiful applique.
Now, you can see larger-than-life quilt squares painted on wood and hoisted on barns, houses and storefronts — just about any flat surface in Upstate South Carolina — and learn the story behind them.
The Upstate Heritage Quilt Trail has more than 140 giant quilt squares on display throughout Anderson, Oconee and Pickens counties — a three-county area in the northwestern corner of South Carolina.
The organizing group for the quilt trail first met in 2009 and hoped to have 10 quilt blocks produced and in place by the semi-annual Festival of Quilts in 2010.
“By that date, there were 30 quilt blocks,” says Carolyn Harris, a past president of the Lake and Mountain Quilters Guild. “After that, it seemed like everybody wanted one.”
Organizers hope to have 200 squares up by 2016.
“Not only has it caught fire in Oconee, but in the other counties as well,” Harris says. “It’s caught fire in some other parts of the state.”
The idea of a quilt trail started with an Ohio woman, Donna Sue Groves, who wanted to “pretty up” a barn for her mother, a famous quilter. Now, almost every state has a quilt trail.
South Carolina’s trail was spearheaded by Aiken native Martha File, who Harris calls the Donna Sue Groves of South Carolina.
“Martha was the one who had the vision, who had the idea,” Harris says. “She and other volunteers make presentations to all these groups, city and county councils. Martha’s fearless when it comes to talking to those people. She has certainly kept after it and gathered a cadre of volunteers to do the painting, the layouts, the marketing, all aspects of working with the trail.”
File, who lives part time in Seneca and part time in Ohio, says she just wants to see this cultural art form celebrated and preserved — even though she is quick to tell you that you won’t see any of her quilts hanging on the sides of barns.
“I’m an organizer and a fundraiser,” File says. “I do make quilts, but I’m a self-taught quilter. I don’t have the quilting skills like these people.”
“These people” are the members of the Lake and Mountain Quilters Guild, who put on the Festival of Quilts in Seneca in September of even-numbered years. Guild members win prizes based on popular vote for their quilt entries.
Having a robust quilting tradition in the area has been key to the quilt trail’s success, File says.
When people commission a quilt square for a building, File interviews them to find out what they want. If they don’t already have a particular quilt in mind, she works to match them up with historic or contemporary quilts done by area residents.
“I track down the quilters to see whether we can use their quilts, and they tell us their stories,” File says.
Each quilt square has a story written that tells the history of its origin and why it is meaningful to the quilter or the owner.
“The people who sponsor our quilts are very involved in the process,” she says. “I am always amazed by how many people want one and how many people have a story.”
For visitors, the quilt trail is a glimpse at an age-old art form, one that was an important part of social life for women before they were in the workforce in large numbers. In African-American tradition, quilts told Bible stories or recounted seminal events in history.
The best way to see some of the quilt squares is to use the interactive map on the Upstate Heritage Quilt Trail website. The fine folks there can even help create a customized map for short or long driving tours of the trail.