Lizzie Morris Bolden: Appalachian Dressmaker

African American Heritage | Fellowships | Grants | History

Kathleen Curtis Wilson (left) and Perlista Henry preparing Lizzie's quilts for documentation. Photo by Pat Jarrett
Kathleen Curtis Wilson (left) and Perlista Henry preparing Lizzie's quilts for documentation. Photo by Pat Jarrett

By David Bearinger

Elizabeth (Lizzie) Morris was born in 1872 on the same farm in Bath County, Virginia where her mother, Ann Crawford Lindsay Morris (b. 1832), had been enslaved.

Portrait of a seamstress
Portrait of Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Bolton. Photo courtesy Bath County Historical Society

Lizzie was twenty-seven when she married Charles Bolden, a carriage driver from Charlottesville. They had a daughter, Alice. Family members say she loved gardening but hated to cook. That she was a devoted member of her church, Mt. Pisgah Baptist. And that she lived in the Warm Springs community of Bath County all her life.

We don’t know if it was her mother or her half-sisters who taught her to sew, but we do know that by 1890 she was earning a living making fashionable clothing for affluent, paying clients, as well as members of her own family and community.

Fast-forward to the fall of 2013, to a chance meeting between Perlista Henry, Lizzie’s great-granddaughter, and Kathleen Curtis Wilson, one of the world’s leading scholars of Appalachian fabric and textile art.

Wilson has twice been awarded VFH research fellowships, one of which resulted in the book Textile Art from Southern Appalachia: The Quiet Work of Women (2001). She also organized and curated a traveling exhibit on woven coverlets from Southwest Virginia, supported by a VFH grant.

Her most recent book, Irish People: Irish Linen was published in 2011. In between, she also served as crafts editor of the Encyclopedia of Appalachia, published in 2006.

After more than two decades spent traveling through Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains, being steeped in the history and family stories of mountain communities and researching the distinctive textile traditions of the region, Wilson instantly recognized the significance of what Henry showed her in that first meeting.

Some of Lizzie’s handwork has survived.

Not just one, but four pieces remain, including two quilts, remarkably intact, made of remnants of other garments stitched together with care and consummate skill. They were passed down the line, from mother to daughter, along with memories of her career as an African American Appalachian dressmaker.

Each fragment has a story to tell. Through these quilts, the life of Lizzie Morris Bolden is preserved and revealed in the work of her hands.

Each fragment has a story to tell. Through these quilts, the life of Lizzie Morris Bolden is preserved and revealed in the work of her hands. It’s a rare opportunity to see the quiet work of women through a new lens. As Wilson later wrote, within the world of scholarship, “the existence of 19th century textiles with a reliable African American provenance is extremely rare. Extant textiles made by a daughter of an enslaved woman in Appalachia are unheard of.”

We can be sure that other, similar works of African American textile art exist within families, but all fabrics disintegrate over time, sometimes very rapidly without proper care, and the chances of such priceless remnants of the past emerging into public view grow slimmer with each passing year.

Fast forward again, to a cold day in late March, 2014. Wilson and Henry are in Waynesboro, Virginia, in the studio with Pat Jarrett, photographing the quilts.

Madelyn Shaw has flown in from Rhode Island to join them for this day. Shaw is a museum consultant, a former Curator of Costume & Textiles at the Rhode Island School of Design, and one of the most experienced textile experts in the United States.

Imagine them on their hands and knees, stretching the delicate fabric so the camera, perched high, can get a better view. Imagine them laughing with joy and amazement at the significance of what lies before them.

VFH supported this photo-documentation through a grant made to the Bath County Historical Society. The grant also supports development of a series of public presentations exploring the life of Lizzie Morris Bolden and what her work reveals.

Close analysis of the quilts’ individual pieces show what fabrics and dress styles were popular in Appalachian Virginia in the years 1885-1915. This knowledge in turn sheds light on the lives of other African American women (and men) in Bath and neighboring counties—and throughout the Southern Appalachian chain—during that time.

Three presentations of Lizzie’s work were initially scheduled: in Virginia Beach and Portsmouth, the latter as part of an ongoing exhibition titled Changing Appalachia: Custom to Cutting Edge; and in Bath County, at the same church in Warm Springs (Mt. Pisgah Baptist) where Lizzie Bolden spent her life.

Kathleen Curtis Wilson (left) and Perlista Henry preparing Lizzie's quilts for documentation. Photo by Pat Jarrett
Kathleen Curtis Wilson (left) and Perlista Henry preparing Lizzie’s quilts for documentation. Photo by Pat Jarrett

In all three programs, Wilson presented these textiles in their Appalachian context, and Henry was on-hand to answer questions about her great-grandmother’s life and work. All three programs featured historic photographs of Lizzie, her family and her community, along with Pat Jarrett’s photos of the two quilts, a drawstring purse and a knitted bedcover.

The entire project will record and preserve a little-known part of Appalachian life and the work of an exceptionally talented woman.

There are exceptions; but historically, in most rural Appalachian communities the number of African Americans was—and remains—relatively small. The 1860 federal census included 956 enslaved men, women, and children and 86 free persons of color in Bath County. Today, fewer than 100 African Americans live in Bath County. Such numbers partially explain why textiles made by African Americans in Appalachia so rarely come into public view.

But it’s also true that mainstream scholarship has rarely focused on the achievements of women like Lizzie Bolden; and that the hand-work of African American craftsmen and women, where it still exists, has tended to be held closely within its family (and community) of origin.

Also, until recently, historians have largely consigned Appalachian textiles to the realm of folk art, often missing in the process what these artifacts can reveal about the culture and economy, the webs of commerce and social connection that define a place like Bath County, Virginia.

In supporting this project, our hope was that many people, in Virginia and beyond, would gain a greater appreciation for the lives of African American women in Appalachia. We wanted to honor the achievements of Lizzie Bolden in particular and to encourage the work of community-based scholarship, informed by some of the leading textile experts living today.

But we also hoped this work would encourage other families to consider what their own heirloom textiles might reveal about their communities, knowledge that will advance our shared understanding and appreciation of what so-called ordinary people have achieved and contributed to Virginia’s common wealth, sometimes against great odds.

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