Sandlapper Society

Upstate Quilt Trail

by Chris Worthy
photos courtesy Upstate Heritage Quilt Trail


In days gone by, women gathered together scraps of fabric— pieces from clothing worn beyond repair or strips salvaged from feed sacks— and crafted utilitarian works of art. Quilts kept bodies warm during harsh winters and gave their makers an outlet for creativity. Friends visited around the quilting frame making fine, even stitches through the layers of pieced fabric.

While fabric quilting is enjoying a resurgence in popularity as homestead crafts are discovered by a new generation, one Upstate group is sharing that heritage with a broader audience.

The Upstate Heritage Quilt Trail is in essence, a modern-day quilting bee. Expert hands work from the design of a fabric quilt, transferring the richness of color and pattern to wood. The quilts hang along the route of the South Carolina National Heritage Corridor, offering moments of serendipity along quiet roads and city streets.

The project came to be after Cindy Blair took a road trip through Kentucky. The sight of bright quilts adorning barns and buildings intrigued her.

“I kept seeing them,” Blair said.

Blair stopped at an arts center in Kentucky to inquire about the quilts she had seen along the journey. When she returned to Oconee County, Blair and friend Martha File set the local trail in motion. The first quilts were hung in February 2010. Within two months, the group had formed the Upstate Heritage Quilt Trail.

“Very quickly, people from Pickens and Anderson counties approached us,” File said.

Gil Huggins, a retired industrial arts teacher, was interested from the beginning.

“My wife and I are both quilters,” Huggins said. “I took to it like a duck to water.”

Huggins’ skill set was a key addition to the group. He had extensive experience with woodworking, quilting and drafting, which made him uniquely suited to transfer designs to wood.

Each quilt on the trail begins with a traditional fabric quilt. Some are commissioned for the purpose of creating a stop on the trail, while others are threadbare heirlooms that are being preserved in an unlikely fashion. Designs range from traditional vintage blocks to contemporary works. Individuals and organizations sponsor their spot on the trail and volunteers set about the process of creating the outdoor work of art. Completed pieces are often so large they are hung by workers from Blue Ridge Electric Cooperative. “They’ll bring in the piece or they’ll have a picture of the quilt they want honored,” Huggins said. “I have to visualize what part of the quilt will have the most impact when it’s drawn.”

Huggins can be found puzzling over the design with a T-square and ruler or at the computer, employing software to manipulate patterns from generations ago.

The volunteers behind the project are themselves a patchwork of talents and interests.

“We have a mix of quilters and nonquilters,” File said. “People who are artists, people who are not, but who enjoy the arts. I don’t know how we would do it without each one we have. We all share the same value in terms of wanting a quality product to leave our studio.”

The group generally spends two morning per week in the workroom at the Oconee Conservatory of Fine Arts.

“It’s like a quilting bee, but we quilt with paint,” File said.

If the quilt is less than perfect, volunteers paint over it and start again— the painter’s equivalent of ripping out uneven stitches.

Chris Troy, the trail’s production director, said the project is a unique blend of art, education and community. She said keeping up with the group’s rapid production schedule is akin to “herding cats,” but the volunteers and the delightful projects make the effort more than worthwhile.

“The people who come and want to paint come back time and time again,” she said.

By any measure, the project is a rousing success— the 100th quilt will be installed by September 7th. Other South Carolina counties are creating their own trails, with volunteers from the Upstate group passing along their knowledge. Aside from pure aesthetics, File said there is an economic benefit from the projects. Quilt trails are a community-based way to complement existing tourist attractions and reflect an area’s heritage. She hopes to see trails throughout the state.

“It’s just a matter of time,” File said. “It will trickle. You can’t rush it. When it comes together, it comes together.”

Jenny Grobusky made her first quilt in 1993. Since that time, she has made at least one quilt for each of her five children, seven grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren and has become a prolific part of the quilt trail project. She said volunteering is more than an artistic endeavor. For her, it is a way to give back to the community.

“I’ve enjoyed doing it,” Grobusky said. “I think it’s great for tourism in South Carolina. People will start looking for them in South Carolina, I hope.”

While the growth of the trail has been rapid, the pace shows no signs of slowing down. Deep reds and vibrant blues are springing forth around every turn.

“For a while, we thought, ‘What if we run out of quilts to do?’ Troy said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen.  

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ATAX funding has been provided by the Oconee County Parks, Recreation & Tourism Commission through Oconee County Council. For more information please visit upstateheritagequilttrail.org.

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