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Quilts for the community

Photos and Story by

Mary Bywater Cross

Mary Bywater Cross

A longtime resident and artist in North Portland once again will have a home for her art – the Cascade Campus at PCC.

The Hattie Bell Anderson Quilt Collection has a new permanent home in Jackson Hall at the campus, thanks to the generous donation of quilt historian Mary Bywater Cross. The collection consists of four quilts, handmade from strips of colorful cloth and flour bags. The exhibit, located in the interior first-floor hallway of Jackson Hall, features the quilts encased in special plexi-glass with short descriptions of how they were made next to each one. Nearby is a plaque with a photo of the late Hattie Anderson along with a history of her life.

There, students, staff, faculty and the community can view her work and learn about Anderson. The collection serves as an introspection of the African-American art style found in quilts and represents the local community around the campus that Anderson used to inhabit. Anderson was a member of the Morning Star Baptist Church; Bywater Cross was able to share the quilts with the church’s Bible study class taught by Alberta Phillips. Several members remembered Hattie and confirmed the heritage and traditions of her quilts with those of their mothers and grandmothers.

"Just as Hattie benefited from the satisfaction of creating these quilts by using techniques from her black heritage combined with her resources for fabrics and sales, I’m confident the broader community will benefit with a greater awareness and appreciation for African-American quilts," Bywater Cross said. "Quilts, no matter their age and condition, have a wonderful way of celebrating an individual’s uniqueness and her time and place in the community and of providing encouragement, strength and self-respect."

Anderson was born in 1894 in Rushton, La., the eldest of eight children. Her life was often hard; she bore the primary responsibility for caring for her brothers and sisters, filling her days with plowing, sewing, cooking and cutting wood.

Mary Bywater CrossAfter moving to North Portland as an adult in the 1940s, she continued the quilt-making hobby that she began as a child. She supplemented her income as a nanny and house cleaner by selling her quilts on the side. Anderson and her quilts were introduced to the broader Portland area by one of her employers, Carole Ratzlaf. Bywater Cross said Anderson was proud of the fact that she was the first African American member of a quilting club on Portland’s Westside, the Northwest Quilters in the 1970s. She died in 1990.

Anderson was known for her improvisation, in which patterns and materials were never the same from one quilt to another or even within the quilt itself.

"My brain runs different," Anderson once told Bywater Cross. "The designs are in my head. I just make up my mind how I want them to look. When you follow a pattern, you lose a lot of materials. Anyway, I like quilts better my way of doing it. It makes it attractive when you have so many different colors together."

Bywater Cross, who lives in Northwest Portland, first saw an Anderson quilt in 1987 when she made a presentation to a quilt study group. Later, the quilt was offered to her. In 2006, she was able to purchase three more. Earlier this year, Bywater Cross wanted to find a home for them at a place where the community could share their history.

"I wanted to find a home where the quilts would be available for viewing," Bywater Cross said. "It would be a way to connect the residents of North Portland to one another. I met with Administrative Assistant Jeannie Lincoln at Cascade and she was very excited about having them there."

Bywater Cross is a quilt historian, author, curator, quilt artist and consultant. She has published numerous articles on quilts and their histories and is an active presenter and lecturer in the community, including the Oregon Council for the Humanities’ Chautauqua Series and the Smithsonian Resident Associates. She has won an Award of Merit from the American Association of State and Local History for her work on quilts of the Oregon Trail migrations.

In her travels around Oregon and beyond, Bywater Cross always enjoys telling stories about Anderson. One in particular involved Anderson joining the Northwest Quilters organization. Anderson had been selling her quilts for $5 a piece, a very low price at the time, even for the 1970s. The organization encouraged her to up her prices to $30 or $35 for her quilts. She did and never saw a decrease in demand for them despite the higher price.

"Often as I’ve studied quilts and quilters, I’ve observed how quilts draw people together to share their lives, their needs and their passions around a quilt frame, at a sewing bee, at a quilt show or on longer exhibition," she said. "By exhibiting this woman’s quilts in her Portland community, reading her story and seeing her photo, one can draw strength from the connected threads of her life."There is an unofficial estimate that Anderson stitched about 300 quilts. For more information on the Anderson quilts or if you know of more quilts made by her, contact Mary Bywater-Cross at (503) 978-5228

About James Hill

James G. Hill, an award-winning journalist and public relations writer, has been the Communications Specialist for the Office of Public Affairs at Portland Community College since November of 1999. A graduate of Portland State University, J... more »

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