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A stitch in ties

Kenny Kemp
Nell Griffin (right) pieced and sewed the fabric from hundreds of neckties worn by Sallie McClaugherty's late husband, John, into two quilts on display at the Clay Center.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Two quilts with local ties on display at the Clay Center almost didn't happen.When Sallie McClaugherty asked Nell Griffin to fashion a quilt out of her late husband John's extensive tie collection, Griffin said no. The women attend the same church and McClaugherty was familiar with and liked Griffin's work. She asked again. Griffin considered the request and eventually agreed."My only requirement was that we never tell anybody I did this," Griffin said.The word is out.She was reluctant to take on the project because she didn't want to get into the necktie quilt-making business, but the McClaughertys were special to her. These quilts are the only commissioned projects Griffin has ever accepted."I saw them together at church and knew how John dressed conservatively with flamboyant ties. I wanted the quilts to replicate John and who he was -- his public persona," Griffin said.John McClaugherty died in 2003. He was the managing partner at the Jackson Kelly law firm, but was perhaps best known for his tireless and effective community fundraising, particularly for the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra and the Clay Center.He usually wore a colorful silk tie. When the McClaughertys traveled, he often found special shops where he could purchase a notable tie. He would return to his favorite shops on subsequent visits."I had all these beautiful ties. I didn't want to just give them away," said Sallie, who gave one quilt to her daughter, Martha Nepa, and plans to give the other one to her son, John. The lap quilts measure roughly 3 by 4 feet and 4 by 5 feet. Before her son's quilt was hung in the exhibit, she used it at home."It's on the back of a chair. I use it across my lap in the evenings when I'm reading," she said. "I enjoy having it to use."Griffin washed, disassembled and ironed each tie, even though they're machine washable and fairly durable. "These quilts will outlive Sallie's grandchildren," Griffin said. She noticed that nearly every tie had some yellow and black in it, which she used as unifying colors. She cut the pieces so they each contained those colors, but the bright quilts contain so many colors, the theme is subtle."How did I decide which pieces to use where? I just picked up pieces and sewed them together," said Griffin, who sewed each of the quilts in about one week. The sewing went quickly after she prepared the fabrics, pondered her design and cut the pieces.She had the quilting done by someone else."I am not an award-winning quilter. I don't ever want to be," Griffin said. She gives the quilts she makes to charities or as gifts to friends and family.
Pieces of history
The McClaugherty quilts are examples of contemporary quilt work and are two of 13 contemporary quilts by West Virginia quilters on display in a Clay Center gallery separate from the exhibit "American Quilts in the Modern Age, 1870-1940."The 24 historic quilts on display arrived largely at the urging of Juanita Reed of the Kanawha Quilters Guild, who approached the Clay Center in 2010 with the suggestion that they bring a quilt exhibit she'd seen from the extensive collection of the International Quilt Study Center & Museum at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.Reed saw the exhibit when she attended a meeting in Lincoln with the American Quilt Study, an organization that documents antique quilts, those made before 1940. The group sponsors traveling exhibits that showcase the methods, patterns and trends that reflect the times in which they were created and the women who made them."I thought we needed to bring this to Charleston and show that quilting is not just about little old women who got together around a frame and quilted in a church basement," Reed said.Reed presented her idea to former Clay Center art museum curator Barbara Racker, who liked the idea, presented it to the board and told Reed the Clay Center would pursue the exhibit.
The quilts on display represent those dated roughly in the years between the Civil War and World War I and the country's transformation to an industrialized country.They include quilts made from kits that would have contained instructions, patterns and fabric -- everything needed to make the quilt -- to others made from scraps and worn fabrics women scrimped and saved to create a warming quilt."The exhibit includes a kit quilt made in a peony pattern that was common in the 1920s and '30s. The log cabin pattern was popular around the time of the Civil War," said Reed, who added that many people recognize the patterns as something an ancestor created. "Nearly everyone has seen the double wedding ring, which was very popular in the '20s and '30s."A quilt made from silk cigar wrappers is on display. Women created the quilts from the silk bands that encircled the cigars smoked by their husbands around the turn of the 20th century.A formal Wedgwood blue and white quilt brings to mind the formal bone china, which Reed speculates must have been favored by the woman who made the quilt.Quilts in the antique display might not hang as straight as their cousins in the contemporary exhibit. Modern techniques and equipment enable quilters to cut, piece and sew with much more precision than in the past."Today we can be so much more accurate," said Reed, who has quilted for 25 years. "Back then, they had a pencil and wooden ruler. It's remarkable they were able to make them as beautiful as they are."Attendance has been good at the exhibit, which opened in December and continues through March 30."I hope the public will come and see and learn about the history of quilting and how it has changed," Reed said. "Women have always wanted to create beautiful things. With quilts, they did that with fabric instead of paints or oils."A lecture series on quilting includes two more events. West Virginia native and lifelong quilter Roberta Farmer will present "The Story of Women and Their Quilts" from 11 a.m. to noon March 9. Kathryn Johnson will present a lunchtime lecture, "Red, Green and Beyond: Evolving Quilts 1850 to 1940," at 12:15 p.m. March 13.The quilt exhibit will remain up until March 30. The museum gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, and from noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Admission is free for museum members or $6 for children and $7.50 for adults.Reach Julie Robinson at or 304-348-1230.
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