Quiltmaker work steeped in tradition, history

First Posted: 1/15/2009

RED SPRINGS - Glenda Biggerstaff is an amateur historian, Civil War re-enactor and genealogy buff. She is involved with the Red Springs Arts Council, active in politics, homeschools her youngest of five children and is refurbishing a two-story, early 1900s Georgian Revival home.
In her spare time, she enjoys quilting.
Having first picked up a needle and thread at age 5, the Pinehurst native sees quilting as a way to thread the past to the present.
“Much of quilting is about my way of reconnecting to history, in an effort to keep it alive,” said Biggerstaff, whose ancestors in Moore County date to the 1740s. “We like to think we have it rough. But if you look at what these women did with bulky scissors, scarce fabric and needles that were precious on the prairie, it's hard not to think, now that was hardship.
“I guess part of me does this to honor what these women did - out of necessity. It's my way to honor the farmer's wife, the merchant's wife and … everyone's heritage.”
Biggerstaff is devoted to traditional methods and products, and rejects the notion that quilting is fine art.
“Right now the upper echelon like to use the term 'fiber artists,' but I don't consider quilting an art; it's a craft,” she said. “What I've come to find out is the so-called experts are the ones that tend to speak the loudest.”
Biggerstaff works exclusively with reproduction fabrics made of pure cotton, even if that requires paying for shipping or taking regular trips to shops as near as Fayetteville or as far as Gastonia. She also tends to follow patterns that are representative of the early 1800s to mid-1900s.
History comes alive where her needle roams, but she finds a way to personalize her quilting.
“Maybe everyone can't do it, but to look at a quilt from the 1800s that women made by looking at something like Godey's Ladies journal book is just a incredible concept and peek back in time. The neat thing too is that there's still a lot of imagination involved when you go to plan out a quilt.”


Biggerstaff never uses the same pattern for more than a single quilt, doesn't sell her productions and rarely takes a shortcut. Her quilts must be stylish, within an era and, above all, functional.
“I tell anyone that gets one of my quilts that, if I see it hung on their wall, I'm coming to take it back home with me,” said Biggerstaff, who has produced 14 quilts. “I'm a traditionalist too and I also feel the stitching and design has to make a statement on the front and on the back side. Machine quilting is big business, but for those who lack patience. Where is the sense of love or sense of self in something that's sent off to be quilted?”
Biggerstaff she has a canned answer when asked how long a piece takes to complete.
“I don't know,” she said. “I used to keep track until it became too hard to do or because it took the fun out of it. But everyone asks. I tend to work at it for long periods of time and then put it away for awhile.”

Patch work

While Biggerstaff had always sewn, her quilting didn't begin in earnest until years after a stack of fabric was dumped into her closet. It arrived with the death of Hattie Martin, her husband Mark's grandmother.
“We got it in 1991 and it sat there until December of '98,” Biggerstaff said.
She was inspired, oddly enough, after seeing “ugly, deplorable” quilt made by a friend. She picked up a needle and her enthusiasm and skills have been built patch by patch since.
Biggestaff has made a quilt for four of her five children. David, a high school senior, constantly reminds his mother that he has been the forgotten quilt child. Mark Biggerstaff, retired from the Army and now a truck driver, “whined enough” to get his wife to make a quilt for his cab.
Each of Biggerstaff's quilts makes a statement in terms of design, technique and style.
“Broken Dishes” is a configuration of odd patches made into a colorful yet off-beat collection. It's a rainbow of colors mixed together with needle and thread.
“Wild Goose Chase” is a 1835 reproduction using 1850 to 1960 fabrics. It has an unbridled and chaotic feel that is corralled into a form that meshes seemingly random pieces.
Biggerstaff hopes to give her “Sunbonnet Sue” quilt, which has a standard 1930s Josslyn figurine as the repeating pattern, to one of her granddaughters.
“Any woman over the age of 65 looks at this and says, 'I used to have one exactly like that,' ” Biggerstaff said. “Quilts are going to make a big comeback soon. They are going to return in a big way. In a way I'm hopeful that family, friends and anyone taking my class sees the connection of quilting to the past. I'm a firm believer that we have to understand the past to know how to plan the future.”

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