HED: Quilt designer is one of a kind
DECK: Retired educator recycles “trash” into new career
By Jane Clark Summers
Daily Journal Corinth Bureau
BOONEVILLE – Claude Wilemon of Burton has turned castaway cloth into cash and a new career. A former teacher, principal and guidance counselor, Wilemon is a quilt designer extraordinaire.
An educator for 31 years, Wilemon was principal at Burton, taught at Corinth and Clarksdale and retired at Mantachie. During the last 18 years of his career, he served as a guidance counselor.
Wilemon admits he can’t sew a stitch and never was an artist. He said he got his start in the quilting business by taking out the trash for a garment manufacturer in Mantachie. Wilemon began saving the larger pieces of scrap material and storing them in his barn.
One day a man from Ohio came by and bought the whole 2.5 ton lot, which would be worth about $5,000 today, lot for $60. Deciding he could put the material to better use, Wilemon contracted with a lady to make quilts on the halves.
Watching the process, Wilemon said he decided, “If she can cut squares and circles, so can I.”
His quilting career was born.
Good material, skilled hands
Through a gradual process, Wilemon began designing his own quilt patterns. Today, he has more than 60 original designs and a cottage industry of six women who help hand piece and hand quilt the works of art.
At one time, he had 14 people helping with the quilting process, but, sadly, the art is dying out with the older generation, he said.
One reason may be that younger people can buy a “handmade” quilt at a discount store for $40, Wilemon said. These quilts are short on quality and just plain short, he said. “Just wait until they wash them,” Wilemon warned. “They will have a rag.”
Using good materials and skilled hands is the key to having an heirloom-quality quilt, he said. Up to four women may work on one quilt before it is finished, with one doing the cutting, one piecing, one doing the embroidery and one completing the sewing.
His cousin Mauveline Short of Baldwyn is one of his best quilters. “She is an artist with a needle,” Wilemon said.
It took Short four long years of “pickup” work to complete Wilemon’s original king-size Rose Bush quilt. This collector’s item is priced at $750. It took two years for Short to embroider an antique car quilt, which is offered at $500.
Something for everyone
Just about every collector can find a quilt to fit his fancy somewhere among the 500 quilts displayed in 18 rooms at Wilemon’s Quilt Gallery on state Highway 30 at Burton.
There are quilts for Ole Miss fans, Mississippi State fans, Arkansas Razorbacks and Florida Seminoles. Fans of “Days of Our Lives” would relish watching their favorite soap beneath Wilemon’s hourglass quilt, designed especially for his daughter, who is a faithful follower of daytime drama. Also hanging are a Magnolia quilt, one of his originals, and an Elvis quilt, which features a pair of blue suede shoes and other pop art designs in shades of blue.
The quilts are displayed as wall hangings and on antique-inspired beds also designed by Wilemon. Many of the beds feature glass enclosed shelving used to exhibit his expansive collection of depression glass.
Like people, every quilt has a name, he said. Some of his other originals are called Southern Bell, Crystal Chandelier, Roadrunner, Fruity Tuity and Cotton Patch.
In addition to his own designs, he sells traditional designs such as the Double Wedding Ring, Seven Stars, Jobe’s Tears and several varieties of Log Cabin quilts (so named because the rectangular strips in the various patterns represent logs)e.
Star Spin is the most expensive to make, he said. Wilemon sells this design for $450, but the same quilt will fetch $1,400 in the Smoky Mountains, he said.
Finding the quilt man
Wilemon has been featured on ETV’s “Mississippi Road” series and is included in a must-see travel guide book, “Only in Mississippi,” by Lorraine Redd. During the Bicentennial, he created all 50 states by counties on quilts, which were displayed across from the Capitol in Jackson.
Susan Lambert, assistant to the director at the Prentiss County Development Foundation, said “I have had a number of people traveling through here asking how to find the quilt man.”
The Quilt Gallery, housed in a long, rambling house made of natural Tishomingo County stone, is almost like a museum. Visitors from the northern states often stop by, Wilemon said.
“I am hoping that young people will walk in here and see this and want to pick it up,” Wilemon said. “It is an art that is dying if the young people don’t get in on it.”
For beginners who want to try their hand at this handiwork, Wilemon has kits available as well as all the supplies necessary to complete a work of art that can warm the soul as well as the body for generations to come.