Patterns from the Past

Master quilter uses familial knowledge to create a contemporary look 
Innovative quilter Connie Brown sometimes dyes her own fabric using a fresh-leaf tech technique and Japanese indigo seeds (right).
Photo by Rachel Pressley

When Connie Brown arrived in Asheville with her husband and young son, in 1989, she brought a familiar skill with her to a completely unfamiliar setting. “We knew no one in the area,” Brown remembers. So while her husband and son made new friends at work and at day school, respectively, Brown relied on her textile skills to keep her busy. 

“All of my life I’ve enjoyed making textiles,” she says. “In my pre-teens, I crocheted and began sewing my own clothes, all self-taught by following the directions on the packages.” To fill out her time, she investigated adult-education courses at Asheville’s AB Tech, where the only courses that fit her schedule were quilt making and cake decorating. 

She wanted cake decorating. But the class was full. 

So she defaulted to quilting — and “Wow,” she recalls. “I was caught — hook, line and sinker.”

Indigo Seeds on Brown’s hand-dyed textile work.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

Now, 30 years later, Brown is not only a master quilter, known for her inventive designs and striking colors in a collection of some 130 quilts, but also a certified appraiser of antique and contemporary quilts. 

The traditional form has strong ties to her own past. “My earliest memories of quilts were the stacks of them at my grandmother’s home in rural western Tennessee,” Brown says. “The stack seemed as high as the ceiling.” Spending summers there with her sister, the pair were allowed each night to choose the quilts in which they’d sleep, folding them on the floor like a sleeping bag in what her grandmother called “Baptist pallets.” 

Tanzania Strut
Photo by Rachel Pressley

One of Brown’s most well-known quilts is “Color Cascade,” a swirl of multi-colored circles and half-circles enclosed in a square border filled with a serpentine pattern. The striking pattern was included in an issue of American Quilter, the magazine of the American Quilter Society, of which Brown is a longtime member, and which certified her as an appraiser.

“My quilts are designed and made entirely by me, whether they’re patchwork or appliqué,” Brown notes. “The Color Cascade” incorporates 680 different fabrics, sewn into discrete units that are joined to form the entire quilt. For such complex, repetitive patterns, Brown will often begin by drawing out the pattern on a computer, adjusting colors and borders as she goes along. “The drawing lets me know the shapes I need, how many of each and of what color,” she explains. “For some appliqué designs, I draw a small sketch of the overall quilt on graph paper, and then draw each element full size to create a template for each shape.”

Fabric dyed with Japanese indigo.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

But as an appraiser, she must rely on tactile clues, from regional patterns down to the minutiae of stitching. Brown recently dated a 1844 piece that included a cross-stitched name; she was able to trace it to a 15-year-old girl who had most likely made the quilt to mark her engagement and pending marriage, in 1846. 

“Everything about that particular quilt substantiated that 1844 was the year it was made — the fabric, style, design, even the thread used for the cross-stitching,” Brown says. “All of it supported the family history of the quilt.”

Twelve Oaks
Photo by Rachel Pressley

Brown’s love of working with fabric has brought a new avenue of exploration, sparked by her discovery of a dyeing process using the leaves of Japanese indigo plants, which she grows and harvests herself before applying the leaves to plain white fabric. The result is a collection of dyed handkerchiefs and fabric swatches carrying the delicate blue patterns produced by the process. (She says the plants are easy to grow — “they’re non-invasive annuals” — and she even collects the seeds, repackages them, and sells them in late winter.)

 But quilting remains a craft deeply rooted in those summer evenings in the Tennessee countryside, nestled in her grandmother’s quilts. They weren’t fancy, worked in simple block patterns made from scraps her grandmother had brought home in younger days from her job at a nearby shirt factory, and quilted by Brown’s great-grandmother and great-aunt. 

Winter Forest
Photo by Rachel Pressley

“Even though I didn’t learn to quilt or sew from them … [those] quilts give me inspiration.”

Connie Brown, Asheville. Brown is represented by the Southern Highland Craft Guild at the Folk Art Center (Milemarker 382 on the Blue Ridge Parkway), where she sometimes leads demonstrations; at the Guild’s shops in Biltmore Village (26 Lodge St.) and East Asheville (930 Tunnel Road); and online ( Also find her on Instagram: @conniebrowntextiles.

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