Lee Jacobs’s Quilt Can Speak

By Diana Bell-Kite, Curator of Cultural History for the North Carolina Museum of History

“I reckon it was born in me to love to quilt,” Elizabeth Graham (Lee) Jacobs [1909–2000] concluded late in life. Raised in the Waccamaw Siouan community of Buckhead, Columbus County, in the early 20th century, Jacobs’s passion for sewing started young. “Mama had to stop with me and show me how to [sew] because I was worrying her so bad she couldn’t get nowhere doing what she was trying to do!” Her grandmother further channeled her energies by teaching her to piece quilt tops. “My grandma would give me some of her scraps. I’d sit right there beside her. She’d trim hers and cut them little ends and pieces; that’s what she gave me to sew.”

Image: Elizabeth Graham (Lee) Jacobs, 1996. Credit: Courtesy of the North Carolina Arts Council, photography by Bill Bamberger.

These childhood experiences shaped Jacobs’s approach to quilting and her aesthetic. “I like them old-time quilts,” she recalled. “I reckon because I learned how to do quilts old-timey.” Such quilts required a degree of self-reliance. “Old-time was what you knowed yourself. You didn’t have no paper and book kind of stuff. You accumulate this with your own mind.” Jacobs, who attended school through seventh grade before leaving to work on the family farm and later marry, had to use available materials such as sewing scraps and sackcloth in her quilting. But frugality did not mean sacrificing beauty. “A quilt that’s made and put together with many colors, seems like it’s pretty to me,” she reflected. “The littler the scrap, the prettier the quilt.”

Lee Jacobs, like many North Carolina women, quilted to remember. She commemorated life’s milestones by making wedding quilts, baby quilts, and housewarming quilts. One such creation is the wedding quilt she made to celebrate her daughter Vonnie’s 1967 marriage. 

Image: Eight-Pointed Star, 1963–1967, Elizabeth Graham Jacobs, 1909–2000, Columbus County, Cottons, Cotton/Synthetic Blends, 79½ x 65, Donation, North Carolina Museum of History Associates, 1996.101.1.

Jacobs pieced the 24-block star quilt from sewing scraps and printed feed sacks. The backing is composed of bleached sackcloth, with a portion of the brand still barely visible.

Image: Jacobs backed her quilt with sackcloth.

In one corner the inked inscription “Vonnie Mintz / March 24, 1967 / Wedding Gift” denotes the bedcover’s commemorative purpose. Lee Jacobs prided herself on providing these mementos to her loved ones. “I was able to give every child I had a couple of quilts apiece. Then I started back and I would give [quilts to] all my grandchildren—seven children and nine grandchildren.”

Image: Either Jacobs or her daughter recorded the quilt’s purpose in ink on the back.

Another aspect of Jacobs’s memory quilting included preserving and passing down her craft to ensure its continuance in her community. Though most Waccamaw Siouan women of her generation did not consider quilting to be a specifically “Indian” artform, many still viewed it as a valuable and long-held tribal tradition. Jacobs gave quilts to neighbors who had lost their homes in house fires, and she raffled her quilts at powwows to support tribal charities. She also quilted together with her friends and taught quilting to family members and local youth to ensure that the craft continued in the community. As a result, the tribe’s younger generations began viewing Jacobs’s and her peers’ quilts as significant artifacts of their Waccamaw Siouan heritage.

Lee Jacobs’s 1960s star quilt appears in the museum’s new exhibit, QuiltSpeak: Uncovering Women’s Voices Through Quilts, which will run through March 8, 2020. Come check it out and experience the dozens of other North Carolina quilts on display that also tell stories of the women who made them. Also purchase the accompanying catalog (from which the above story is excerpted) onsite at our museum shop or online at https://ncmuseumofhistoryshop.com/.

Image: Lee Jacobs’s quilt is one of forty on display in QuiltSpeak: Uncovering Women’s Voices Through Quilts.

Works Cited:

North Carolina Arts Council, 1996 North Carolina Folk Heritage Awards, program booklet, 1996.

Jill Hemming, Waccamaw Siouan Quilters: Piecing the Past and Future (Bolton, NC: Waccamaw Siouan Development Association, 1997), 15.

___________, “Waccamaw-Siouan Quilts: A Model for Studying Native American Quilting,” Uncoverings 18 (1997): 202.

1940 US Census, Population Schedule, Ancestry.com: Columbus County, NC, Bolton, sheet 12B, household 108, L. Elizabeth Jacobs; 1930 US Census, Population Schedule, Ancestry.com: Columbus County, NC, Bolton Township, sheet 1B, dwelling 11, Lee E. Graham.