When she was a child in southern Alabama, Ann Powers Phillips was like many young people, taking little interest in the traditional arts carried on by her elders. Her mother and grandmother were skilled quilters, and though her mother taught her how to sew, “I didn’t want to quilt. I told my mama, ‘I don’t need to. I’m going to be rich enough that I can buy blankets.’” She adds, “And now that’s all I want, is quilts.”
Mrs. Phillips moved to South Carolina in the 1950s, and in the mid-‘70s she and her family built their home outside Sumter, on land that long ago was the site of a coaching waystation. When the house was built, she says, “I realized this house is not going to be complete without quilts.” In 1975 she began once again to make quilts as her mother had taught her. She has made dozens in the years since, and is recognized by others as one of the region’s most skilled practitioners of the art.
With a strong preference for traditional patterns, such as those used by her mother and grandmother, Mrs. Phillips is especially fond of working on variations of the Flying Geese and Log Cabin forms. Among the most notable features of Mrs. Phillips’ quilts is their precision. Though she machine-pieces the tops, she usually does the actual quilting by hand, and her stitches are so small and perfectly regular that one could easily mistake them for the highly calibrated work of a sewing machine. She also has a strong eye for color combinations and contrast. She remembers ruefully the fabrics that she was forced to use in the 1970s, with colors that were so unstable that they all eventually faded to gray. “It was the ugliest stuff I ever saw in my life,” she says. “It would hurt your eyes to look at it. Then we had a space of time that the colors were so bright that it would make you nauseated to look at it. Especially green—poison green.” In the years since, Mrs. Phillips has relegated all her scraps from the 1970s and ‘80s to what she calls “The Ugly Box.” Nevertheless, her skill is such that even the quilts that she makes from contents of The Ugly Box are objects of striking beauty—such as a quilt that she made in the Tumbler pattern, with hundreds of tiny keystone-shaped pieces of decades-old fabrics.
Ann Phillips is an active member of the Swan Lake Quilt Guild, based in Sumter. She is a skilled teacher and has taught workshops through the guild. A lively and entertaining storyteller with a fondness for the oral history associated with quilt patterns, Mrs. Phillips is an outstanding ambassador for traditional quilt making.