Quilters have their favorite genres and makers. Maybe you’d drive a long way to see an exhibition of Baltimore Album quilts or quilts made by the women of Gee’s Bend. But only a tiny handful of individual quilts trigger mania all by themselves.
Think of the “Dear Jane” quilt made by Jane Stickle in 1863 with its 169 unique blocks and elaborate scalloped border. Or the two iconic Bible quilts made by Harriet Powers in the late 19th century. All three of those quilts are owned by museums, and all have been lovingly copied by devotees.
Add to that list the Graveyard Quilt, which is also part of a museum collection and has been reproduced by ardent fans. Made in Kentucky in 1843 by a grieving mother named Elizabeth Roseberry Mitchell, this quilt depicts a graveyard in the center, complete with a picket fence topped with climbing roses. Within the cemetery are four coffins, each labeled with a family member’s name, with additional coffins sewn along the bottom border. When a family member died, the year of their death would be written on the coffin next to their name, and the coffin was moved to the center cemetery.
Although mourning quilts were commonplace in the 19th century, this one by Mitchell is extraordinary. Mourning quilts have included tombstones but don’t usually feature coffins or a cemetery, let alone a plan to move the former into the latter. “I’ve never found anything like this [quilt],” said Julie Kemper, a curator at the Kentucky Historical Society (KHS) in Frankfort, which owns the Graveyard Quilt. Julie is used to hearing from the quilt’s fans, some of whom make pilgrimages to study the quilt. Although Abraham Lincoln’s pocket watch is considered the most noteworthy item in the KHS collections, it doesn’t have the fierce following of this old quilt. Due to its fragility, the quilt is rarely shown to the public. Julie said that in her 12 years on the staff, it has only been displayed twice and for three months each time. While school kids sometimes call it “creepy,” she said, “To me, it isn’t just about mourning. This quilt works like a family tree. I see it as celebrating life and celebrating family.”
Details of Mitchell’s Graveyard Quilt, currently housed by the Kentucky Historical Society.
In September, the nonprofit American Quilt Study Group held its annual seminar in Louisville, and a bus trip to the Frankfort museum sold out fast. The museum staff wisely ignored the other 199 quilts in the collection, and set out only the Graveyard Quilt in its collections space, dividing up the eager quilt makers and scholars into two half-hour viewing sessions. There were questions; there were tears, and many photos were taken.
Sandra Starley, a quilt appraiser, historian, and collector who sometimes makes reproductions of antique quilts said the quilt brought tears to her eyes. “Seeing that quilt up close was a true goosebump moment. It is one of the most iconic American quilts, such a clear manifestation of grief, hope, and beauty. And its fans aren’t just quilt history nerds.”
She added, “It is amazing that this quilt has been preserved, studied, and loved for 175 years and yet is still mysterious.” One of the mysteries is about a similar graveyard quilt Mitchell started but never finished. Donated by a Mitchell family descendant to the Highlands Museum and Discovery Center in Ashland, that one was never quilted. She made that top after the death of her son John at age 2, sewing on a coffin and embroidering his name and death date, 1836. A few years later, a second son named Mathias (nicknamed Bub) died at 19. She added a coffin with his name underneath.
Pictures taken by Meg Cox during the American Quilt Study Group’s trip to the Frankfort museum.
In 1840, Mitchell, her husband, and children moved to Kentucky. Using some of the same fabrics, she began making a new mourning quilt—the one now owned by the historical society in Frankfort. Was she driven to make mourning quilts with explicit coffins because her dear boys were buried back in Ohio, and she couldn’t visit their graves? Why did she stop working on the first quilt and start another a few years later? Such questions fascinated quilt historian Linda Otto Lipsett, who wrote a book called Elizabeth Roseberry Mitchell’s Graveyard Quilt: An American Pioneer Saga in 1995.
What is clearly undeniable is the power of what Mitchell made from her grief. The quilt is eleven blocks wide, and she bore a total of eleven children. It continues to inspire many others in diverse ways. Kathleen Loomis is an art quilter from Kentucky who is very familiar with the Graveyard Quilt and decided to copy some aspects of it in 2006 when she made a quilt about all the Kentuckians who had died in the Iraq war by that point. Within a smaller number of rows of LeMoyne stars than in the original, her cemetery includes 43 small American flags representing coffins. On each, she wrote the name of a serviceperson who died and their date of death.
Conversations with several people who have made reproductions show that their motives and methods vary. Maryland-based quilt historian Polly Mello loves to collect quilts that others consider macabre. She has quite a large collection of mourning quilts and often lectures about them.
“Of course, the most famous mourning quilt in America is that Kentucky Graveyard Quilt. I got tired of just showing pictures of it and decided to go ahead and make a reproduction,” she said. She began about a decade ago, inviting friends who shared her love of quilt history to help her make the 48 LeMoyne stars and execute some of the appliqué and embroidery. There’s never been a pattern for the quilt, and like others, Polly had to rely on dark photos of the original. “I calculated they were probably 6-inch squares in the original, but I decided to make 5-inch squares because it’s easier to travel with a smaller quilt.”
On her version of the quilt, the names on the four center coffins are historian friends, including Mimi Dietrich, who prefers making Baltimore Album quilts to mourning quilts and was a tad squeamish about the honor. According to Polly, many of her friends specifically asked to have their names on coffins, and she began adding those to the back of the quilt, which she calls “Kentucky Requiem: A Quilter’s Gathering.”
Quilter Hollis Taylor of Missouri was inspired to copy the quilt for very different reasons. Hollis said she was “going through a sad divorce in the late 1990s” and had plans to create quilt patterns that were a modern twist on vintage designs. She heard about this “odd quilt with weird coffins on it” and sought out photos. “I identified with Elizabeth Mitchell because she was looking for something to help her grieve. I think making this quilt was like her Prozac. I’ve got a whole stash of 19th century reproduction fabrics, and I wanted to copy her quilt as closely as I could.”
Hollis said she used a magnifying glass on photos of the original to try to match the fabric patterns as closely as possible. Although she confesses to using a rotary cutter, in most respects she tried to duplicate Mitchell’s methods. Hollis stitched the quilt by hand and dyed some of the fabric herself using walnuts, as Mitchell reportedly did. She even did the hand quilting by candlelight, Hollis said, “because I wanted to know how it felt to be her.”
Quilter Hollis Taylor with her reproduction of the Graveyard Quilt.
Elizabeth Roseberry Mitchell created such a powerful tribute to her departed beloveds that people still talk about them today. Quilters who hear about the quilt and see it can’t help but hope their own mementos in cloth last this long.
Polly said of her reproduction, “I feel like I honored the original maker. Her quilt will eventually turn to dust. But if people like me remake it, at least her design and her story might continue.”
Note: Curator Julie Kemper wrote about the Graveyard Quilt in our Kentucky issue. Writer Meg Cox was among those trying not to drool on the quilt when the AQSG visited the museum in September. The photos from that day are hers.