University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives

Rural Cooperatives, March/April 1998, pp. 25-27
Published by the Rural Business and Cooperative Development Service 

Appalachian Artistry

Quilting coop provides vital income for West Virginia craftswomen

Editor's Note: This article updates a feature that originally appeared in the May/June 1997 issue of Rural Cooperatives.

They're tucked away among the hills and hollows of West Virginia's rural coal mining country: 300 rural artisans preserving part of America's cultural heritage through the country quilts they produce for the Cabin Creek Quilters Cooperative.

    The quilters maintain their cooperative headquarters in the small community of Malden, just east of the state capitol of Charleston, in south central West Virginia.  Interstate highways crisscross the state at that junction.

    Ninety percent of the craft cooperative members are women, and 50 to 150 are active at one time, depending upon the season. With the coming of spring, the attention of members turns to gardening, but as winter approaches the craft projects again stir their interest as a way to generate supplemental income for their families.

    Vivian Gillespie, who chairs the 11member board of directors, has about 20 years' experience with the cooperative. Like many other members, her husband is a coal miner. The extra income from quilts have kept many families alive in the community, both during the heydays of the mines and later when the coal supply played out.  When Cabin Creek was formed in the early 1970s, the state had 75,000 people working in the mines, but today employment in the mines has dwindled to 25,000.

Profile of Cooperative Member

    A profile of the cooperative's typical member is a woman in her late 50s, living in a rural area, and has income that places her close to the poverty level. Many of the older members receive Social Security. Some of the younger ones are either unemployed or marginally employed.

    Since the bylaw change in 1991, the coop's board has been comprised of six seamstresses and five professional members, explained James Thiebeault, the cooperative's representative and manager. "While it keeps the voting majority in the hands of the stitchers, the professionals-including an accountant, lawyer, and educator -bring valuable perspectives from their experiences to the board," he said.

    Thiebeault came to West Virginia in 1970 from Massachusetts, assigned by Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) to survey air and water pollution in the small mining town of Cabin Creek, where acid from the strip mines had seeped into the water of home wells.

    As he made the rounds from home to home, the older women began to show him the quilts they and their ancestors had made. The meager income they earned from the quilts helped make ends meet when checks from coal mining were lean.

    Seeing the beauty of their work and yet the low prices prompted him to search for a business structure for a quilting enterprise. Instead of a needle and thimble, he contributed business and marketing skills. It seemed that a quilter owned cooperative, complete with member governance structure, would fill the need to invigorate the incomes of these rural Americans.

    "The ladies broke all the rules in forming the cooperative," he said. "They understood the need to produce the highest quality crafts and they were hard on themselves in doing so," Thiebeault recalled.

    "With only a few television sets in the community at the time, much of the time was spent spinning verbal yarns of the early quilting days. These people impressed me. They had an historical connection to pioneer life. Their fascinating oral traditions were woven into their quilts," he said.

Historical House

    Thiebeault became the cooperative's representative and stayed on until 1976, when he left to pursue other uses of his graduate degree in education. He reentered the picture in 1991 while he was involved in historical preservation in West Virginia. He soon was working with the cooperative to help them find a new headquarters that would befit such a vital link to West Virginia's past.

    "We identified a local historical house that would fit the cooperative's needs, although it was beyond the cooperative's financial ability to purchase," he recalled. Thiebeault coupled his local historical society interests with a Pittsburgh foundation grant to secure sufficient financing to cover the purchase.

    The pink house with blue teal decorations became the cooperative's headquarters and retail shop. "The move to our new historic setting complimented our efforts to draw more tourist business."

    Membership in the Cabin Creek Quilts cooperative is open to West Virginia residents.   To join, the stitcher must provide a sample of her work and then supply the cooperative with at least $100 of saleable crafts per year.

    "Our older directors, like Mrs. Gillespie, provide a different perspective from having seen the fluctuations in the cooperative's business-been there, done that- and know what it takes to keep going in down cycles like we have now," Thiebeault said. "The market is basically soft for textile crafts produced by home stitchers because of the flood of cheaper imports.

    "To counter that," said Thiebeault, "we emphasize our rural American tradition and heritage found in these quilts and other craft items we produce. And in recent years, that heritage has been tied to tourism in the state."

    Thiebeault adds, "Our 1840vintage house that serves as the cooperative's headquarters is itself a historic attraction. The cooperative uses six of the eight rooms. The house has large porches on which women can sit in rocking chairs and demonstrate their craft while stitching on the quilts. We display 60 full-size quilts and 100 baby quilts m our showroom and also offer exhibit space to a local glass factory.

Attraction for Tourists

    Tourists are just beginning to find the coop thanks to an interstate highway sign installed earlier this year by the state department of transportation. It directs tourists to the small community and cooperative site. Weapplied for it five years ago and they had to check us out for a variety of features such as being wheelchair accessible.

    "We're seeing a daily trickle of people and can handle busloads if notified in advance," Thiebeault said. "What we have to offer is therapeutic-a break from people's busy lives and the intensity of interstate highway travel.  We show life as a stitch at a time. Visitors develop an unexpected interest in the rural tradition being preserved by the cooperative.

    "While cheaper imports are available, the tourists sense the quality, personal time, and heritage woven into these quilts and the $800 price becomes a cultural thing that means something to people. We put it in a white drawstring bag to protect it rather than a plastic bag in which it can rot.

    "While we're interested in selling the quilts, we don't use a hardsell approach with the tourists because we're also interested in providing information about our tradition and heritage handed down from one generation to another," he said.

Training and Employment

    The coop doesn't have the staff capability to produce a newsletter right now, but is trying to maintain member interest with training. In addition to conducting training at its Malden headquarters, it also takes training sessions to rural communities. In one instance, the coop rented a hall in a county seat town and sent in an instructor to work with people on a current project.

    "It's expensive to do that but we want to provide employment to low income people and preserve the traditional art that's part of their heritage. We can bring 125 people up to our standards, even though some might later drift away from us. We have helped preserve part of their heritage," he said.

    In another attempt to maintain member interest, the cooperative encourages members to read magazines to see what's happening on national and international markets and bring in new ideas at weekly sessions conducted at the headquarters for the cooperative to adapt on new projects. A group of about eight members bring a lunch and make samples for use by the cooperative in developing new products.

    Periodically, the coop brings in new equipment so members can be more productive and efficient. "We combine a social atmosphere with home sewing and although we can't provide huge volumes right now, we need to consider what home sewing will look like in 10 years," he said.

Patching Together Appalachian, Slovak Quilters

    They live continents apart and have never met one another. Yet a group of West Virginia crafters have begun to stitch together a friendship with some sister crafters who belong to the new Slovakia Women's Needlework Cooperative.

    The connecting thread was carried from Malden to Slovakia last fall and sewed in place by Jamie Thiebeault, manager of the Cabin Creek Quilts cooperative near Charleston, W.Va. The idea of forging links between quilters half-a-world away from each other occurred on a mission he took for ACDI/VOCA, the development arm of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives in Washington, D.C. He'll return to Slovakia for another two-month stint at the end of June.

    Essentially, he was conducting a marketing study in a village area in eastern Slovakia, a former wine and sugarcane growing area near the borders with Ukraine and Hungary that was used mostly for munitions manufacturing during the Russian occupation.

    Using a translator to help with the language differences, Thiebeault was invited to view an exhibit of craft articles made mostly by local women. "They displayed some excellent samples of needlework, embroidery, some wood carvings and paintings," he says. I offered tips on marketing their crafts and developing a business that would attract tourists looking for souvenirs that represented the Slovak culture. We're doing much the same right now in West Virginia. My plan was to jumpstart their budding operation with some of our techniques

    "As a cross-cultural gesture on behalf of Cabin Creek, I placed an order for 50 traditional hand-embroidered needlework squares with the new 10member cooperative," Thiebeault adds. We'll incorporate them into some of our crafts such as quilts, pillow cases and bibs. If the test marketing works, we'll take them to craft shows in New York and Atlanta to measure the popularity for further marketing and development.

    Thiebeault had some previous experience at this type of marketing when he worked on a project with the Hmong (a Southeast Asian people) as an exhibit. Although the Slovak cooperative is small, there is a tremendous opportunity to expand it and create many others. "We'd like to become the finishers and designers for a multicultural craft market," he says. "In doing so, we'd be taking a page from operations manual of the U. S. automobile industry. This is part of our survival strategy.  I envision these crafts could be used as a cultural lesson for kids.

    "We want to pull out that American ingenuity so our members can keep sewing in their homes and face the challenges of global competition," he adds. "We need to think about what is unique and genuine in our culture that can't be copied."

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