Elizabeth Graham “Lee” Jacobs
Bolton, Columbus County
1996 North Carolina Folk Heritage Award Recipient
Quilt-maker Elizabeth Jacobs is a member of
the Waccamaw-Siouan Tribe, one of North
Carolina’s smaller Native American tribes,
whose traditional homeland is down east.
The Waccamaw Siouans have become better known outside their region since
they began holding annual powwows in the 1970s, but most of the tribe lives
in small, rural communities in Columbus and Bladen Counties.
“Miss Lee,” as Elizabeth Jacobs is known, lives about 40 miles west of
Wilmington, in the Buckhead community.
Miss Lee is possibly the most prolific quilt-maker in the community. At one
count, she believed she had made nearly two hundred quilts.
How long quilt-making has been going on in the tribe, she says, she has no idea.
When she was growing up, making quilts
was a tradition of “making do.”
She continued quilting when she married John Jacobs, a blacksmith and
farmer. Together they reared seven children.
“To tell you the truth,” she says, “people
did not have money to buy cloth to cut up.
I’ve had plenty to eat all my life, I’ve had
somewhere to live all my life. But now I’m
telling you one thing, I have seen some
Space was at a premium in the house where she raised her family, but she always
made room to quilt.
Some of her quilts have been worn
to shreds. Her children still love
them, because the quilts tie them
to their past.
They see family and
community history in those
Feed sacks, blankets, textile mill remnants, shirttails, dress hems, and even tee
shirts, silk slips, and old tablecloths show up among the fabrics.
Miss Lee makes quilts partly to keep warm, but she
kept quilting long after she had enough bedcovers.
They are the best gifts she knows, she says.
She gives quilts to high school graduates, couples getting married, families
celebrating the birth of a new baby, families who lost everything in a fire,
and, of course, to her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
She believes that when you get a
quilt, you get something you
can really use.
Women in the community who want to learn to quilt know they can get
help from Miss Lee.
She remembers how her
grandmother and mother taught
her, and she keeps that in mind
when she teaches.
One of her famous quilting classes meets in the local fire station.
Women in that class still smile when they remember her argument for making
small stitches: “Make the stitches kind of where you wouldn’t get your toe
hung in them.”
Priscilla Jacobs, former chief of the tribe, says quilting is one
of her tribe’s most persistent traditions. She remembers how
her grandmother would pile quilts on the bed so thick you
couldn’t turn over on a cold night.
“Like cooking,” she says, “quilting was something women had to
Women don’t have to quilt these days, but if you stop by Jacobs’ grill, you
can still see them making quilts in the side room.
Like most quilters in the community, Miss Lee tried many methods –
working from whole cloth and quilting around the printed design, for
But her best quilts, she says, are the ones for which she used her own
imagination to piece together the design.
Those quilts are not ideas that somebody else gave to you.
They are, as she puts it, “the ones that your own mind
She says that when she
was still doing a lot of
quilting, night was the
best time to quilt,
because at night you
couldn’t see anything
else you had to do.
She would sometimes sit in her
dining room quilting until one
o’clock in the morning.
She didn’t make
these quilts just
was cold, she
“I did it because I loved it.”
Elizabeth Graham “Lee” Jacobs
1909 - 2000
Photographs by Bill Bamberger and
Jill Hemming, and courtesy of the